Coming Clean

Living year-round in the tropics, I have never had more than a two-minute chat with a tourist that didn’t lead to the question, “So, what do you do?” If I’m in a smart-ass mood, I may redirect such an inquiry in various ways (“It’s paradise! We don’t work, we just drink all day!”). But usually, I answer straight up. And the tourists are almost always surprised that a nice girl like me  does something like that.

To put it plainly, I clean houses. But I don’t say it like that to visitors, because many non-islanders tend to confuse what someone does for a living with some essential truth about who they are as a person. I break it a little more gently to guests from farther North: “I do housekeeping for select high-end villas.” “I maintain properties for short-term rentals.” “I handle guest turnovers.” Now doesn’t that sound respectable?

Bottom line, I’m the one who arranges the pillows all fancy on your bed, pulls the last guest’s hair out of your shower drain, sweeps away the lizard droppings and dead (or not) scorpions from the corners, and generally makes paradise look and smell like what you’ve envisioned from the website photos — just a few hours, sometimes mere minutes, before you arrive.

My mother is unamused by my current career choice. I’m not sure whether it’s because she can’t declare me a success to her friends or because she feels I’ve wasted her efforts to help me through university, efforts that were a precarious balance of student loans and tuna fish sandwiches and a lot of hard work from both of us.

Oh yes, I have a college degree — more than one, with honors. I worked in corporate positions for many years, earned six figures, and enjoyed room service in luxury hotels during business trips, all expenses paid.

And now, I do windows. The kind that need ocean salt spray wiped off weekly, not the kind that requires a laptop. So let me tell you why being a villa housekeeper is one of my favorite gigs ever.

First of all, it’s low stress. I do my work, and I go home (or to the beach!), travelling a beautiful road with little traffic, overlooking stunning ocean views. When I’m finished, I have instant gratification for a job well done, and I don’t think about work for a second after I leave. Nice and simple.

In addition to the lovely commute, it’s tough to beat my working environment. We’re talking multi-million-dollar homes in breathtaking island settings, where visitors shell out thousands for a week’s stay. On my lunch break, I get to enjoy everything a villa guest does… plus getting paid.

Also, although I have some regular commitments to certain houses, I also have the wonderful ability to say “no” if someone wants me to work on my birthday, a Tuesday, or whatever day the next boat trip is happening. I’m not one to cancel at the last minute, but there’s nothing I do that someone else can’t fill in and do for me, if needed.

In the Land of Everything-is-Expensive, of course, one of the sweetest benefits of this job is what you score when the guests leave stuff behind. Sometimes it’s full-size toiletries that nobody wants to pack in their carry-on. Or maybe it’s gourmet food left in the fridge because everyone wound up eating out rather than cooking on vacation. I have enjoyed everything from $40 bottles of shampoo to fancy cheeses and half a week’s worth of groceries. And I never have to buy sunscreen or toilet paper (when a guest leaves half a roll or less, the housekeeper will either toss it or take it home).

I’ve also met some cool chicas who work alongside me in turning over the larger properties. I might never have crossed paths with them otherwise, these mamas and artists and motorcycle babes. They are savvy, hard working, and pretty fun company at the end of a day when you’ve just poured a ton of sweat and speed into turning around a massive five-bedroom villa as a team in less than six hours.

So, you’re thinking, that’s cool, but nobody makes all that much money cleaning. Without being indiscreet, I will say that the least I’ve ever made on a cleaning job in the islands was $20 an hour. And that was awhile back, while I was still learning all the tricks of this trade.

For every benefit, of course, there’s a drawback. The work is physically hard, and if you do it for too many days in a row, you’ll find yourself too tired to even make it to the beach, let alone clean your own place. Some guests are pretty tidy, but others seem to explode every which way, leaving sand, food, and hair in the most unexpected places. Certain owners and villa managers can be, uh, demanding to work with, to say the least. And sometimes those quirky, interesting coworkers get a little… weird.

Housekeeping isn’t full-time work for most of us, so there’s no health insurance, retirement plan, or job security. But then, those aspects of working life seem to have gone missing for a lot of my corporate pals as well. Not to mention that those beautiful views and crystal blue waters that I enjoy daily, my former colleagues are saving their vacation days and travel dollars to enjoy them for just a week or two. And that’s all the time off they get!

No, I never planned I’d grow up to be cleaning houses, posh ones or otherwise, as part of making a living. Yet I can no longer imagine going back to the 9-to-5 working world I left, no matter how good the money looks. My time is just too valuable.

And right now, it’s time for a dip in the villa pool while I wait for the bedspreads to finish up in the dryer.

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Iris Tramm

About Iris Tramm

Iris first arrived in the Virgin Islands as a child on a family vacation and the tropical vibe and beauty captivated her. Two decades later, free from all obligations to live anywhere else, she bought a plane ticket, packed three bags, and moved to paradise. The first thing she learned was that when you sit at a desk all day, paradise looks pretty much the same as anywhere else, even if you can eat fresh tropical fruit off the tree for breakfast and go snorkeling on your lunch break. In her quest for a better balance between cash flow and happiness, she took a gig as a villa housekeeper and has never enjoyed herself more at work. Iris would also like you to know that unlike her fictional namesake in Don’t Stop the Carnival, she has no interest in drinking quite that much, nor in having an affair with the governor.

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18 thoughts on “Coming Clean

  1. Great story! I love your attitude toward your job. Yes, you do get to enjoy daily what we work months to be able to live with for a few short days. Your work is some of the most important to the industry though, and that makes it incredibly valuable! Thanks, and best wishes.

  2. What a great story. I myself am a house cleaner…. I can relate to so much of what you said. The only thing I wish I could relate to more is that while I am cleaning, I wish I was cleaning where you do!!!! Who knows…..maybe I’ll see you around sometime, when I finally decide to head for the islands myself….not to just vacation, to stay!!!

  3. right now this is the kind of work I’m doing here in NW Indiana – but in an apartment complex 3x a week and a counseling office 2x a month – not my usual line of work for sure. Maybe I’d like it better if I were doing it there not here. got any openings?

  4. Hi Iris – Great insight. Thank you for sharing. I am done with the corporate world after 12 years and ready for the island life. Would you be willing to chat more with me on your life and job on the island?

  5. Lived on St John for 15 years. Left in 2000. Been there and done that. Not a bad gig at all! Also loved landscaping those gorgeous rental homes. Plants don’t talk back!! Lol. Enjoy ur life!!

    • I’m sure you could, Sandra, if you found a job to hire you and get you a work permit. A British passport doesn’t get you any special treatment in the BVI, so it’d be the same process as any other expat. Cleaning jobs though would be unlikely.

  6. I was recently asked by a young person why I chose to leave a great paying job with an offer to have an MA in business fully paid by them where afterwards I would have gotten promoted and a bigger salary. I had difficulty answering the why at the time. Much of what you have said is the answers to my why. Love it! I will share this with that young person.

  7. Iris Tramm…don’t stop the carnival!! It sounds like you found your niche. I’m in the D.R. and when I first arrived, I couldn’t bring myself to have a housekeeper, I’d never had help before (despite the fact that I was very busy, and as you know, salt never sleeps). I had a hard time getting my head around having someone work for me…I am a healthy, capable, private woman, why can’t I do this for myself?..until I realized I really COULDN’T keep up with the sand and salt. The other thing that pushed me into hiring Miguelina (an absolutely delightful woman), was the understanding that employment opportunities for LOCAL people in need was very low…and me insisting on doing my own housework was taking food out of the mouths of poor people who really need the work to survive (I’m in Republica Dominicana, and the poverty here is heartbreaking). I “work” a full time job (no pay) providing free health care to impoverished Haitians and Domincans, often 40-50 hours a week (more if there is a natural disaster or epidemic to deal with)…and my time is better spent there than on my windows (which are sparkling in the sun). I pay more than the going wage (about double), and her duties are relegated to surface cleaning (no laundry, beds, etc.), once a week . Leaving those things to her expert efforts has opened up so much more time for what I feel is more important for me at this time…and I’ve learned the value of plain water and microfiber cloths.
    Glad you have found your “means to an end”…it sounds lovely. Those perks are valuable when living on a rock!! All the best!!

  8. So many people, especially from the US, look down on people that don’t fit their “mold” of success. bravo to you! I cleaned dive boats and hauled gear and was never happier. Keep going girlfriend!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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