The curious art of cleaning

I’ve never been one to colour-code my books. Nor am I interested in arranging them according to author, preference, age or genre.

My cleaner, on the other hand, believes an organised book shelf represents an organised mind. She is meticulous in the way she separates Colombian literature (Márquez) from the other, more inferior kind (Vargas Llosa, Cortázar, Saramago)

The first day I arrived home to find Márquez duly separated from his contemporaries, I thought it was a bit curious. Now though, I know there is nothing stranger than employing someone else to clean your apartment.

I’m not particularly bourgeois, nor am I excessively lazy. But the lack of government help in this country means everyone works where they can and market forces have colluded to create a large group (mostly women) who are willing to work in your home for a low salary.

My flatmate and I pay our cleaner the going daily rate – 20,000 pesos – which, when split, is around £3.50 each.

Outrageous, I hear you cry. I’ve read Kathryn Stockett’s The Help; I would never be such an evil employer.

Okay, so you’re probably right – our only concession to guilt is the simplicity of our flat. We don’t own a fridge (more on that later) we don’t own anything, except my books, that requires dusting and, unlike many Colombian employers, we don’t demand our meals are pre-cooked.

In short, it’s three hours of mopping the floors and hand washing (we don’t own a washing machine either) in return for an eight-hour rate and as much tea as you can drink.

Our cleaner, Natalia, seems happy enough. I still feel a bit guilty which, as it turns out, is exactly why we foreigners are so prized within cleaning circles.

Apparently, we are soft.

I’ll never forget one foreign friend telling me he came home early one day to find his cleaner asleep in his bed. Worse, she was somewhat elderly and he struggled to wake her.

Another spent weeks wondering why his wallet always felt a little lighter, only to discover his kindly cleaner was relieving him of the burden of carrying too many notes.

(This is unusual though; reports of cleaner-based theft are reasonably rare considering everyone I know, including impoverished teachers, has succumbed to employing one)

There are more serious concerns – reports of cleaners who have been hoodwinked (I kid you not) into believing their employers have been kidnapped. They followed the ‘kidnappers’ instructions to the letter, stripping the house of valuables and delivering them just in time for the none-the-wiser employer to walk through the front door.

(Sadly, given Colombia’s history, a phone call telling you a rich person has been kidnapped is not as unlikely as it would be to those of us who grew up in England)

My Colombian friends always tell me I am too weak – my cleaner is always late, I am never openly annoyed… I don’t demand glasses of water, I get them myself – but I didn’t realise the truth until the day Natalia fell sick and we had to employ The New Cleaner for a day.

She demanded more money, which I accepted. Then she arrived on time, which meant I was unprepared. She just looked at me – the lazy, over-sleeping blonde woman. Then she looked at our meagre selection of cleaning fluids, essentially just one multi-use chemical that can be used for everything from the floor to the toilet. She was unimpressed.

“The other cleaner manages okay with these,” I stuttered, before going into my spiel about how she had three hours before my flatmate returned at lunch time and, if she liked, she could help herself to tea.

“No coffee?” she replied, raising an eyebrow. I fled.

When I returned that night, the flat wasn’t particularly clean. My flatmate informed me that she had paid The New Cleaner, but that the woman had left me a note.

I read it. It wasn’t a note. It was a comprehensive list of cleaning fluids, numbered one to 11, that it seemed I had to buy if I ever wanted my home to rise above the grubby mark.

I thought of the old cleaner. She messes with my books; she washes clothes that don’t need washing and she is so uncomfortable with the alien presence of our kettle that she boils the water for her tea in a pan on the hob.

I will never cheat on her again.

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