The Cleaning Lady Knows


Leon, Nicaragua

I’m renting a room in a large house, sharing it with about eight other foreigners, mostly Germans. Juanita, the cleaning lady, works here five days a week for four hours a day and then moves on to another gig.

She cleans the house and if you leave your door open, she’ll clean your room — fresh sheets, bathroom scrubbed, floor mopped. The works…

Many of the people here delight in this every day. It’s included in the (relatively) high rent. I don’t really think I need fresh sheets (which she washes by hand) every night — I certainly didn’t have them when I lived in the US. So I only ask her to clean my room once, maybe twice a week.

I believe in leaving a tip, whether it’s part of the local culture or not. I lay a 20 cordoba note on the pillow each time. I’m no hero — that’s just less than a buck but to someone making probably less than $100 a month, it’s a dinner for her family.

The first two times, she places the bank note on my side table, cleans and leaves. The third time I follow her into the room and point at the bill saying, “this is a tip”. She smiles and thanks me.

Juanita speaks very little English but she’s dealt with gringos enough that she’s learned to speak slowly and keep things simple. I’m very thankful for this. We’ve managed a few conversations about her life in Nicaragua and I’ve met her husband and chatted with him. They’re good people.

She likes me and I want to think that it’s not only because I tip her but that I engage her as a fellow person. Too few tourists do.

Getting back to the main subject, yes, the cleaning lady sees it all. She changes the sheets and knows if you had sex last night. She empties your trash and sifts through it — there might be something that can be recycled for pennies. Or there might be something that you decided to toss out that she can sell to that vendor in the market for a dollar.

She knows it all. She has to, to survive.

And she knows, from cleaning my room, that I drink too much. She’s seen the empty bottle of rum, the occasional half-full beer can that I hid in the corner. She knows.

This morning I find something that was not there when I moved in. The bathroom wall doesn’t go to the ceiling, it is a seven foot tall slab in the corner, obviously added long after the building was constructed. The top of the wall creates a small shelf.

And now, sitting on that ledge is a tiny crucifix with a small tag covered in scripture, something bought at the market for pennies.

I’m not a religious man, but I know a blessing when I see it. She isn’t pushing her beliefs on me. She’s trying to help me in the only way she knows.

The person who washes my clothes, scrubs my sheets, mops my floor and empties my trash is praying for me.

The world continues to astound me. Those who have the least give the most.

62 comments on “The Cleaning Lady Knows

  1. Beautiful story.
    Lainie Liberti recently posted..A Review- 40 Berkeley- BostonMy Profile

  2. Wes, you continue to amaze me with your effortless storytelling. Thanks for sharing this. I’ve been inspired…in more ways than one.
    Marsha recently posted..Smith Tower, Secrets, and SeattleMy Profile

  3. awesome story! There is such truth in your last statement:

    The world continues to astound me. Those who have the least give the most.

  4. I’ve been reading your blog for a while, and I wanted to tell you that the last 2 posts are excellent pieces of writing, telling more of travels through life than travels around the world. Thank you.

  5. Another great one, my friend! I highly encourage you to focus on more excellent blog posts like this, and less on photoshopping hilarious pictures of myself for Facebook.


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  6. I’m truly enjoying this new writing spree that you’re on!! Keep up ;o) What a wonderful peek into the local culture.
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  7. Michael on said:

    wow, truly awesome post
    I have goosebumps

  8. This was a great story, as I suspected it would be. But I didn’t foresee that ending. Love it, very much.

  9. Another great post, Wes. Loved how you developed the narrative here, and of course, the compassion this entire post exuded. One of the most humbling things about traveling has been meeting so many wonderful people who are ostensibly very poor… and yet—as you say—they have so often astounded us with their generosity. Sounds like you are taking good care of you cleaning lady, and she, you!
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  10. We had a cleaning lady for the first time when we lived in Thailand. She always did more for us than she had to: She’d pick fruit, slice it up and bring it to our house for us, and she even gave me a ride to the market when our scooter wasn’t working. When we explained to her that we were leaving, she became very emotional and teared up. We were always kind to her, but I was completely overwhelmed by how much she cared about us.
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  11. Usually, the cleaning lady observes and know the real you. I always see to it to treat them nicely and have decent conversation with them from time to time. This article made me smile :)
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  12. What a great story. When I was living in Argentina, it took a long time for me to get used to the maid culture. Basically every middle class family had a maid for at least a few days a week, if not more. It was so strange to me that some people rarely spoke to their maid. I was disgusted to meet a Peruvian maid who had worked for the same family for 10 years and still called them Señor and Señora, never by their names.

    However, another family who I grew very close with, treated their maid like a friend. They too gave her extra tips, bonuses, and even their old laptop. I loved talking to her about her life, and she loved learning about life in the US.

    People, if given the chance, can often surprise you.

  13. I am, just like with your last post, impressed with your story telling. It’s a great story and you’re telling it so well.
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  14. This is adorable. But there’s no way to tell whether it’s the “I’ll pray for you” of condescending self-righteous crazy people or the “he’s one of the good ones” type of thing. But awwwwww.
    OCDemon recently posted..Every water bottle on the planet is stupidMy Profile

  15. It’s definitely because you treat her well as opposed to taking her for granted – you have a friend there.
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  16. Thank you for this post, it made me smile and be thankful for what I am blessed with in my life. There is much I can learn from this lady. Those who have the least give the most. I like this line.

    Keep on writing man, I especially love your personal encounters with the people in Nicaragua.

  17. Robert on said:

    “The person who washes my clothes, scrubs my sheets, mops my floor and empties my trash is praying for me.” for him it is the cleaning lady …for me, this was my Mother for 17 years ….the praying (part) continues. …I am a lucky man.

  18. J B Roth on said:

    Thank you, Wes, for sharing this beautiful story! We love hearing about your travels and the way you tell your stories is truly a gift!!! Thank you again and good luck in all you do!!!

    Your Kansas Friends!!

  19. A little engagement sure goes a long way. Sometimes it’s a questions about the family or the weather, or sometimes it’s a tip, but you are right at how nice it is and sometimes how rare it can be.
    Scott recently posted..Pictures of San Servacio Cathedral, ValladolidMy Profile

  20. Krishna Prasad on said:

    You have such a honest narrative, truly inspired by the way you notice underlying elements in your eventful journey and manage to convey it in the most simplest of manners to the world! Thank Wes!

  21. Beautiful post. If you had never interacted with her, like most tourists, you wouldn’t have seen it. It probably wouldn’t even be there. But she left it for you. It was her way of saying that your conversations meant something to you too. You connected. And you’re right – she’s thinking of you in a way that means something to her.

    That’s awesome!
    Jeremy Branham recently posted..5 airline tips for rude airline passengersMy Profile

  22. How beautiful. The world definitely continues to astound me, too.
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  23. This is so well written and really intriguingly heartfelt! I love that you’ve pulled such an interesting narrative from something I’m sure many expats take for granted. I remember having the same series of emotions when I was living in Indonesia as a child about our housemaid. Now she remains one of my closest Indonesian friends, a second mother and yes, a keeper of secrets.
    But thanks, it was really beautiful.
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  24. What a beautiful and humbling story.

  25. Very inspiring Wes…. Awesome!

  26. Awesome, Amazing, Inspiring……..
    Both the lady and your story telling !
    There’s still hope in this world of materialism/war/terror/etc !
    and now if somebody can pray for me please – i too want to work online and travel like Johny Vagabond !
    Enough of 8 to 6 computer staring, back aching job !

  27. Johan Horak on said:

    I like your observations and honesty.

    Life is a bummer. But it can be worse if you go around pretending. In other words being a liar. You lie to the world and to yourself when you pretend. And this short post is a great post on being honest. Well done and no wonder your blog is doing well.

  28. A beautiful write up of such a nice gesture!..
    I like that she is so subtle: instead of imposing her beliefs on you, as you say, she does something for you but her own way.. without imposing herself, without expecting recognition.
    Zara @ Backpack ME recently posted..Our harrowing journey with Zara’s India Visa (in realtime)My Profile

  29. Once again Wes, you astound me with few words but many thoughts for me afterwards.

    Sometimes I wish you did these as an audio podcast or a screencap video podcast so I could “hear” you tell these stories in my ears instead of just in my head ;-)
    Mike Sigers recently posted..Off the Beaten Path: The North South Cafe in Robards, Kentucky – White Beans, Fried Cornbread, Catfish, and Coconut Cream Pie with a Side of NostalgiaMy Profile

  30. It is the people we encounter that make the biggest impressions in our travels.
    Great article. Beautiful story.
    Megan recently posted..My Solo-Travel Nightmare: CompanyMy Profile

  31. Thank you for sharing that inspiring story. It reminded me of when I went to my new friend Maruch’s house in Chiapas, MX. She is Mayan, from a small village, and like everyone else, very, very poor. Her family served me a bowl of soup with a tiny piece of meat. I was the only one with meat in my soup…

  32. Escpaing Abroad on said:

    Out of all the travelers I enjoy reading, you are by far the most entertaining, touching, unique and well written!

  33. Great story and let me tell you! You are an amazing narrator! But I guess some heros make it easy for you. Great woman Juanita!
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  34. As has been said before you really paint a picture. It is a shame that more of us don’t take time to get in touch with the Juanita’s of this world.
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  35. Nice. You staying at Jason’s place, Harvest House?

  36. Great piece! I love when people surprise me — esp. when traveling and when a language barrier is present but it doesn´t matter.
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  37. “Those who have the least give the most.” So many times I found this to be true.
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  38. charles on said:

    We travel as a family whose in-law relative won big, really big, in a lottery. When we’re in the tropics, we try to leave really large tips, even though we’re putting 3 kids thru college. We’d rather leave the money in third-world countries than in Canada. We know who needs it most. We don’t. Others do. I like to think that we who have a lot must share. We have great kids, and they can earn their own money. The dollars we leave behind mean a lot to others.

  39. So happy to see someone so hardworking and kind be appreciated. Great essay, Wes. And enjoy Nicaragua!! As you know, you’re in my favorite part of the world…
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  40. So beautifully written! Loved this post!

  41. Great story! Thanks for sharing!
    Shannon Elizabeth from recently posted..Explore Stuttgart: 72 Things to Do!My Profile

  42. Chetan L on said:

    Very nicely told, Wes. It takes a good human being to recognize another…keep up the good job of regaling us with your stories. Just chanced upon them today – quite hooked, I would say.

  43. I needed to hear this story today. Thank you. And thank you Juanita.
    Rashad Pharaon recently posted..6 Cities Where Digital Nomads Live On The CheapMy Profile

  44. Thanks not only for the story, but for being one of those travelers who actually notice the people in the countries he visits.

    This story really shows that “poverty” is a relative term. Most of the west thinks of it in terms of money, but there’s also spiritual, mental, and moral poverty.

    Non-religious blessings to you and to Juanita.
    Jade Adele recently posted..Why a Fight with my Boyfriend’s Aunt Might Make You a Better TravelerMy Profile

  45. What a great story. I am new to your blog but I really enjoy it. You are a great writer with fantastic stories.
    Tana B recently posted..Volunteering at Unidos Para Los AnimalesMy Profile

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