The Cleaning Lady Knows

63 comments

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.

{ 63 comments… read them below or add one }

Lainie Liberti April 26, 2013 at 7:54 am

Beautiful story.
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Marsha April 26, 2013 at 8:17 am

Wes, you continue to amaze me with your effortless storytelling. Thanks for sharing this. I’ve been inspired…in more ways than one.
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wes April 26, 2013 at 2:57 pm

Thank you Marsha. I wish it was as effortless as one might think ;)

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Caroline @ Traveling 9 to 5 April 26, 2013 at 9:39 am

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

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

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Shanna April 26, 2013 at 10:01 am

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.

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wes April 26, 2013 at 2:56 pm

Thank you so much.

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Glenn Dixon April 26, 2013 at 10:07 am

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.

Thanks.

LOL
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wes April 26, 2013 at 2:55 pm

Oh yes, I *am * overdue for a new photo, aren’t I?

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Glenn Dixon April 26, 2013 at 4:54 pm

Ah geeze *smh*
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Candy April 26, 2013 at 2:52 pm

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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wes April 26, 2013 at 4:39 pm

Thanks :)

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Michael April 26, 2013 at 2:59 pm

wow, truly awesome post
I have goosebumps

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Karen April 26, 2013 at 3:56 pm

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

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wes April 27, 2013 at 6:06 pm

Thanks. I didn’t expect that ending either ;)

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Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) April 26, 2013 at 5:33 pm

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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Jessica April 26, 2013 at 6:43 pm

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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wes April 27, 2013 at 6:06 pm

It’s a cliche and I used it it the post but it’s true: those with the least give the most.

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Micamyx|Senyorita April 26, 2013 at 7:29 pm

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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Rease April 26, 2013 at 8:36 pm

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.

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wes April 27, 2013 at 6:05 pm

It’s amazing: treat people like you would want to be treated and things happen. As you say: give them the chance.

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Angela April 26, 2013 at 8:55 pm

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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OCDemon April 27, 2013 at 1:19 am

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.
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wes April 27, 2013 at 6:03 pm

I’m pretty sure it comes from a good place :)

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Maria April 27, 2013 at 8:47 am

It’s definitely because you treat her well as opposed to taking her for granted – you have a friend there.
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Rachel April 27, 2013 at 10:24 am

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.

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Andi of My Beautiful Adventures April 27, 2013 at 4:55 pm

Lovely story!

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Robert April 27, 2013 at 5:22 pm

“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.

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wes April 27, 2013 at 6:02 pm

Yes, you are.

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J B Roth April 27, 2013 at 5:29 pm

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!!

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wes May 6, 2013 at 7:46 am

Thanks so much, Gary. I hope you and Joann are doing well. Lance and Ben as well :)

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Scott April 28, 2013 at 4:29 pm

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.
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Krishna Prasad April 28, 2013 at 10:22 pm

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!

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Jeremy Branham April 29, 2013 at 8:38 am

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!
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Amanda April 30, 2013 at 3:54 pm

How beautiful. The world definitely continues to astound me, too.
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Oceana | Barefoot Beach Blonde April 30, 2013 at 6:01 pm

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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wes July 17, 2013 at 3:03 pm

“keeper of secrets”… We all need a few more of those, yes?

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Larissa April 30, 2013 at 9:17 pm

What a beautiful and humbling story.

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Mo Draj May 3, 2013 at 3:23 pm

Very inspiring Wes…. Awesome!

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Raji May 4, 2013 at 12:07 am

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 !

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Johan Horak May 6, 2013 at 5:52 am

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.

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Zara @ Backpack ME May 7, 2013 at 5:57 pm

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.
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Mike Sigers May 8, 2013 at 8:10 pm

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 ;-)
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Megan May 10, 2013 at 1:31 pm

It is the people we encounter that make the biggest impressions in our travels.
Great article. Beautiful story.
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Mimi May 13, 2013 at 3:40 pm

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…

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wes May 15, 2013 at 7:13 pm

Breaks your heart, doesn’t it?

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Escpaing Abroad May 18, 2013 at 5:13 am

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

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Marysia @ My Travel Affairs May 22, 2013 at 12:03 pm

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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wes May 23, 2013 at 6:13 pm

She’s lovely. Her family too.

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wes May 23, 2013 at 6:18 pm

Some stories almost write themselves. Some are hard slogs…

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Roberto May 23, 2013 at 4:08 am

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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Eric @ Trans-Americas Journey May 26, 2013 at 12:06 pm

Nice. You staying at Jason’s place, Harvest House?

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wes May 26, 2013 at 2:16 pm

Yeah. Your sticker is still on the fridge ;)

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Fran May 30, 2013 at 8:09 pm

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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Laura @Travelocafe June 29, 2013 at 10:47 am

“Those who have the least give the most.” So many times I found this to be true.
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charles June 29, 2013 at 4:13 pm

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.

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Abby July 4, 2013 at 12:31 am

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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Sheena July 28, 2013 at 3:49 am

So beautifully written! Loved this post!

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Shannon Elizabeth from GrabMyPassport.com August 17, 2013 at 4:48 pm

Great story! Thanks for sharing!
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Chetan L October 5, 2013 at 10:53 pm

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.

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Rashad Pharaon December 9, 2013 at 12:09 pm

I needed to hear this story today. Thank you. And thank you Juanita.
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Jade Adele December 11, 2013 at 8:33 pm

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.
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Tana B January 25, 2014 at 11:23 pm

What a great story. I am new to your blog but I really enjoy it. You are a great writer with fantastic stories.
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Polly Monear April 26, 2014 at 8:16 pm

Beautiful, wide-awake writing. Well done, my friend.

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