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For hundreds of years, a staple image of Porto, Portugal, has been its narrow streets decorated with draped colorful clothes, dancing high in the wind. No matter when or where, someone is hanging outside a window laying out a clothesline of freshly laundered garments. Even today, Portuguese people take great pride in their laundry, and don't mind exposing it to the world. For many, washing clothes is a free-spirited social occasion. The Savvy Traveler's Rolando Arrieta discovered a laundry scene where happiness and kinship blend well with fatigue and hard work.

Fado Laundry

By Rolando Arrieta 9/13/2002

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Amid its charming medieval coastal setting, Porto lacks one amenity for travelers, a Laundromat. "A Laundromat? There's no such a thing in this country," a tourism operator told me on the phone. For 3 months, I stayed in Porto, the "2001 European Capital of Culture." And, in my weekly quest to find a place to do my laundry, I came upon a uniquely Portuguese cultural jewel: "Os Tanques," in Afurada, a small fishing village just across the river.

Sound: Portuguese women talking

Click for popup of pictureThat's Ana Soares and Maria Oliveria. They visit the "tanques" every day, veins bulging down their necks from balancing a basket of grubby trousers on their heads. For several hours they tackle piles of clothes, washing them all by hand.

Ana: "Gosto muito lavar afora. Nos temos maquina, mais gostamos mais lavar a mao. No se hacho que e habito da terra que nos estamos habituados a lavar y que todas gente tives saude, lavamamos mas no rio que na maquina. Somos uma clase pescatoria. Gostamos muito de lavar aqui nos tanque."

"I love washing my clothes outside," Ana says. "It's a habit. We all have machines, but we prefer washing by hand. And, as long as we have our health, we will continue washing at 'os tanques,' instead of using our machines.

"Os tanques," or the tanks, is an open-air public laundry made of individual cement stalls, with chiseled grooves for scrubbing. A hose pours an endless supply of clean running water. The stalls are old, gray, dark and corroded by the salty sea breeze, but it beats doing the laundry chores at home.

Ana: "Nos estamos aca fora, nos fallamos, nos cantamos, nos reimos, vemos quem pasa, quem noa pasa. Estamos habituadas a lavar na agua correr. Gostamos muito de lavar aqui na rua."

"We're outside, we talk, we sing, we laugh," says Ana. "We see who's walking by, who isn't. We like being out here on the street. "

Maria: "Y a gente falla de coisas, uma y de otras y pasamos asi no tempo. Umas canta, umas fallan. A pesoas aqui que te sabem bem cantar Fado."

"We talk about everything and anything," says Maria Oliveira. "And, that's how we spend our time. We get together, we wash, we talk and we sing. Some ladies here can sing very nice Fados."

Fado is the folkloric music of Portugal. The lyrics often reveal a life of hardship, lost love and torment. Like the Blues in the U.S., singing Fado uplifts the soul.

Sound: women singing and laughing

Click for popup of picture
For the hard-working women of Afurada, like Ana and Maria, the "tanques" is a sanctuary where they can let loose, releasing the daily anxieties of surviving in this poor village. While the husbands are out at sea fishing, Ana and Maria are slapping, scrubbing, rinsing and twisting piles of garments. Always laughing…always singing.

Sound: women singing

The "tanques" in Afurada are free, first-come-first-serve. I went several times, but ended up doing more watching than washing. That's because I learned something else about doing laundry in this town. According to another clothes scrubbing regular, washing at the tanks is a job for women only.

Scrubbing Regular: "E asi, si uma mulher a lavar, aqui ningem fala, ningem dice nada. Agora si vem um homen aqui a lavar, as persoas vam estar a criticar por ser um homen y estar aqui a lavar. E por eso. Mais, homens qui vem aqui a lavar nao se ve."

"It's like this," she says. "If a woman comes here to wash, no one says anything. Now, if a man comes here, everyone will start criticizing him for being a man and for washing his clothes here. Men just don't come here."

Click for popup of picture
Rolando at "the tanks."

But, hey, don't let that intimidate you, if you're guy. Pay a visit to the "tanques" to wash clothes, or simply to hear Fados. No matter what, you'll always receive a warm Portuguese welcome from the hard-working ladies of Afurada. Hand them a microphone and they'll gladly take a brake to sing a hymn of their own.

In Afurada, Portugal, I'm Rolando Arrieta for The Savvy Traveler.

Afurada is a short boat ride across the river from Porto. Daily, unscheduled ferries are available. But you can easily hitch a ride from the many fishing boats going back and forth. You may also take bus lines 91 and 83.

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