The woman sitting on my curb, looking for work

Last Updated on June 3, 2023 by Ellen

A woman offered to clean my apartment for a reasonable price. She was sitting on the curb in front of my apartment building in Tulum, where the trash can is kept chained up.

I didn’t know what she was trying to say. She kept saying “limpieza” and I hadn’t learned yet that’s the Spanish word for cleanliness. There is a vacant apartment next to mine, so that fact plus some words I could pick out from her speech led me to believe she was asking about the condition of the apartments. Wrong assumption, but I wouldn’t know that until later.

I spent about five or six minutes with her. The clock was ticking. I was in a rush to get my bedding to the laundry service before Spanish class. So I politely said I didn’t understand, and off I went.

I explained to my teacher the exchange with the woman sitting by my building’s trash can, and reviewed some of the words she used, like limpieza.

He said she was offering to clean my apartment, including scrubbing the floors and bathroom, for a good price. She was telling me with dignity that she could offer a valuable help.

She was always smiling, and seemed to be carefree, despite sitting on the curb by my trash.

She never named a price or used the word ‘pesos’. If she had, I probably would have understand she was trying to sell me a service. I was too much in a rush to pay enough attention, even though I’m trying to learn Spanish. Shame on me.

During Tulum’s low season, the summer months, the locals earn less. This is a tourist-based economy and destination visits slow down when tourists are not eager to come here in the heat and rainy season (although there hasn’t been much rain this year so far).

Now add in the sargassum issue – that smelly seaweed invading Caribbean vacation spots that is deterring some tourists. I’ve talked to locals who know some English, and they tell me it’s much more difficult to find work and earn tips this summer.

I needed a cab recently and I practiced a little Spanish with the driver from the passenger seat. Once pleasantries were exhausted (that’s all I know as of now), I asked in English how business was this summer. He visibly stiffened. He said this year has been the worst it’s ever been. He also said he’s worried if the tourists stay away this winter, what will happen to his livelihood.

Forty-five percent of Mexicans live in poverty. The average income is  $13,000 in U.S. dollars a year. Of course, that’s the average of people with official jobs. An estimated 40 percent of adults over 15 do not officially work. I think it’s a safe bet the woman on my curb earns less than the average, and is included in the statistic of not officially holding a job.

Tulum has been expanding for years, growing away from its town square and main avenue for tourists featuring restaurants, bars, dive and souvenir shops. Minimum wage workers do the grunt work. They earn about $5 a day.

(Side note, print journalists in this part of the country make about $12 dollars a day.)

Still, even in this low season, there is evidence of still more expansionin Tulum. More dirt roads are being paved – even in this sweltering heat. The picture to the left shows a minimum wage worker leveling the dirt before the steamroller came. I took that picture at noon. It was more than 90 degrees.

I don’t eat out at restaurants too often, but I walk or bike by them every day. Wait staff look bored during meal hours.

At Bodega Aurrera, a lower-priced supermarket owned by Walmart, I saw a man of modest means buy four tomatoes, two onions, and few cans of cheap food. My items were comparable. But, he had two young girls at his side. I don’t have children to feed.

The struggle is real. It’s the same everywhere – it just looks different here.

Back in the U.S., I know several people who are either laid off, or, they are employed but they are actively searching for better employment. Or, they are too frustrated at being overworked and underpaid they gave in to the rat race and now they complain they feel trapped – like they can’t quit because they fear there is nothing better.

People struggle with money everywhere. We’ve made it part of the human experience because there will always be Alpha personalities who feel the need to accumulate ‘more’ out of fear of having ‘less’.

If I don’t see the woman who was sitting on my curb again, I still will remember her, and I’ll slow down and try to better listen to what another person is saying to me.

If I do see her, I actually could use some help in exchange for a couple of dollars. I do my own laundry (minus bedding and towels) and often sweep and mop the room and porch.

Who knows. If we strike up a deal, maybe she’ll humor me, and help me practicar mi español.

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