There's more to bathing than hygiene

This is my column today, March 30, 2014.
Several related news items in the last few weeks caught my attention.  First, the results of a recent Social Weather Stations survey which said that Filipinos ranked toiletries (bath soap, toothpaste, etc) as more important than, say, rice or sugar.  This had some academics stumped because of the way it redefined the notion of what comprises basic survival needs.  Then there was the human interest story about National boxing champion Emmanuel Manny Pacquiao’s amused reaction to Timothy Bradley’s revelation that he (Bradley) does not bathe for the entire week leading to his fights in keeping with the superstitious belief that doing so negatively affects one’s chances of winning.  Pacquiao was supposed to have reacted with incomprehension; like most Filipinos, not taking a bath was an alien concept to the boxer.
And then there were the usual seasonal pictures of people flocking to the beach - in the case of some Metro Manila residents, to the breakwater area at Roxas Boulevard – to get respite from the summer heat.  We know that the Health Department has issued advisories warning people that bathing in the murky waters of Manila Bay posed clear and present danger to one’s health.  I guess making people cognizant of danger is difficult if the consequences are not immediately palpable.  Many just pick immediate relief from the scorching heat over possible skin problems, diarrhea, or other medical conditions associated with ingesting polluted waters.
Anyway, the inescapable conclusion is that bathing is something that is part of our DNA as Filipinos. 
We’re so fastidious about bathing and to a large extent personal hygiene that the activity always figures among the various lists of the top distinguishing characteristic of Filipinos anywhere in the world. 
Indeed, you are a Filipino if you absolutely must take a bath at least once a day regardless of the conditions.  I remember one time when I went up to the mountains of Sagada with a group of mixed nationalities during the Christmas break in the nineties; our foreigner friends were amused with how the three of us Filipinos in the group went through all the trouble to heat water and make all the other preparations just to be able to bathe in near freezing temperature.  Similarly, one is supposedly a Filipino if he believes that there is no point in going to the beach if one does not take a dip in the water; lolling around on the beach or baking dry under the sun just do not qualify as beach activities for Filipinos. 
We bathe for hygiene purposes.  We do equate having good character with the ability to adhere to certain standards of personal cleanliness.  I still remember the learning sessions on Good Manners and Right Conduct during my elementary days when our teachers repeatedly hammered the idea that being poor was not an excuse to be unclean, that there was dignity in wearing old clothes as long as they were not stained or dirty, or that having body odor, dirty nails, or uncombed hair were signs of bad upbringing.  But this is also because being clean and exuding a nice scent are also linked to our notions of attractiveness and desirability, thus “amoy beybi” (smells like a baby) or  “amoy bagong paligo” (exuding an after-bath scent) are standard dialogues related to intimacy.  
But more importantly, I think this is also because bathing for us is a social, even communal, activity.  In our culture, a family outing is most often a trip to the beach or to a resort with a swimming pool and the whole activity is dubbed as a “bathing activity” (maliligo) rather than as an excursion or a vacation.  Families eat, drink, play games, sing, dance and do all kinds of social activities in between taking dips or frolicking in a body of water. 
While growing up in the province, my siblings and cousins and I would bathe together.  Sometimes we would do it around a communal well while our mothers and aunts did their laundry, or we’d take a short trip to the artesian well where water flowed freely from a contraption  powered by a generator.  On weekends, we would even walk a few kilometers to a river to bathe and play games, and yes, we would bring soap and shampoo even if we were bathing in a body of water.  I guess this is where that classic joke about province lads soaping themselves up while bathing in a swimming pool comes from. 
This was why, in my first job after college as a culture and language resource person for the United States Peace Corps program, I readily understood the need for a learning module that taught American volunteers to the Philippines how to bathe publicly using a malong (for women) and loose shorts (for men).  The skill that women employ when bathing publicly while clad only in a strip of cloth seem effortless for Filipino women who grew up in the provinces. 
Well, summer is here and unfortunately the costs associated with going to a resort with a swimming pool have become prohibitive.  But we’re an ingenious people so we come up with innovative solutions.  Pools made out of inflatable plastic have sprouted in our neighborhood particularly during weekends.  The other night, the nephews in our house have cleared the area in our terrace where they will to set up an inflatable pool in the next few days.  Resisting the urge to join them will be very difficult.  


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