A Land of Contrasts

I have been thinking a lot about the contrasts here in Colombia. On the one hand, there is the harsh reality of poverty. While it’s not nearly as bad as I have seen in many countries in Asia or Africa, Colombia still has its share of poverty and the socioeconomic problems associated with it, such as violence and crime. For instance, take our housekeeper, a humble woman with deep lines in her face, who is missing most of her teeth. When I first met her, I thought she was in her late fifties or early sixties. Then she told me that she has four children, the youngest are 6 year old twins. Wow, she must be in her mid-forties! One look at this woman and you know her life has been tough. She lives hand to mouth, feeding her children on the roughly $16 per day that she earns for eight or more hard hours of work, when she is lucky enough to have work. Her husband doesn’t earn much more than that as a day laborer, doing whatever odd construction jobs he can find.

Our housekeeper was first introduced to us by our nanny’s family. We needed somebody to clean the house before we moved in. Noemi had extremely gentle energy. She reminded me of a wounded puppy. She seemed so grateful for the work and hopeful for the chance that this might become a permanent job. At the end of the first day, she sheepishly told me that she would like to work for me because I “know how to tell people what to do.” It was clear that she hadn’t been treated well in the past by her employers. What I later learned from our nanny’s sister, is that even though there are laws governing how you can treat your domestic employees in Colombia, many maids (lets be honest, that’s what they are here, even though I insist on calling Noemi a housekeeper to my children.) are treated awfully. They are forced to work super long hours, doing really hard labor, yelled at and called “stupid and worthless” by their employers when they make a mistake. She told me that there are women in our conjunto who teach their children to not even say hello to the maids because it is beneath them. Or who repeatedly hire maids, promising to pay them at the end of the month, and the day before the month is up, they say that a necklace is missing and fire the maid without paying her. And they do this over and over. Apparently some neighbors in the conjunto don’t like our nanny’s sister too much because she has advised mistreated maids of their legal rights and helped them file complaints with the authorities.

So we have hired this woman to work for us four days a week, eight hours each day. I try to treat her as kindly as I can. I say thank you for everything she does. I want to pay her more that COP30 (about $16 per day, the going rate) but I have been told by people, including our nanny’s mom that I have to wait awhile and then raise her salary as a reward for doing her job well otherwise she will think I am foolish and not respect me. Apparently people have been so conditioned that they get paid miserly wages that they can’t really understand a higher wage as an act of kindness or fairness.

So if poverty and subservience is on one end of the scale, luxury is on the other. We have gone to the country club a few times this week to try out our guest membership and see if we want to join. The club is beautiful with its perfectly manicured lawns and golf course. The indoor Olympic size pool is spectacular with huge palm trees and its huge domed glass roof that lets in plenty of sunshine. Every time we have gone, we have been the only people there. In the dressing room, the attendant kept handing me fresh towels, plastic bags for our wet swim suits and then ran our shower, spending several minutes adjusting the water so it was just the right temperature. Service is of the highest quality. Everybody is incredibly polite. We always return from the upper class club to our middle class conjunto, where we are greeted by Noemi who has been cooking our food and cleaning our messes…. and I feel uncomfortable.

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