My Pembantu

by Tabitha Kidwell

When I lived in Columbus and was training for marathons, I used to love my Saturday morning routine: I would get up early for a long run, come home, make coffee and breakfast, take an ice bath, and clean the house, full of energy from my runner’s high.

I have much the same routine on Friday mornings now: I wake up early for a long run (18 miles this morning!), come home, make coffee and breakfast, take an ice bath…

Ice Bath... from the knees down only.

Ice Bath… from the knees down only.

… and sit around reading the New Yorker, full of energy from my runner’s high.

I used to think I loved cleaning, but I think now that I just really love having a clean house, because I don’t miss it a bit now that I have a housekeeper. That’s right, a housekeeper! Another overpaid teacher who is living the high life!

Ok, but if you moved to Indonesia, you could afford a housekeeper, too. You could probably afford a couple of housekeepers. It’s very typical to have a housekeeper, and most middle class families have one. It’s a sort of social welfare – those who have some disposable income use it to provide someone else with a job. Just like on Downton Abbey, but with less intrigue and fewer attractive people.

Here, they are called pembantus – helpers. My students translate it as servant, but that makes me feel too antebellum, so I prefer housekeeper. Or her name – Ibu Ita (which I now sometimes use as my name when making reservations or orders over the phone, since it could conceivably come from tabIThA and is a common Indonesian name). She comes twice a week to clean and do my laundry. For this, I pay her 350,000 rp a month, which might seem like a lot to Americans who would love to have 4 zeros at the end their monthly salary, but the conversion only comes out to $35.89. My Indonesian friend only pays her full-time pembantu 500,000 rp a month, so I think Ibu Ita is getting a pretty sweet deal. I mean, she used to come to work by mini-bus, and now she has her own motorbike. I think she’s doing alright.

Ibu Ita’s deal is even sweeter considering that I pay her in full for the months when I am traveling around Indonesia or home in America, and all she has to do is come and hang out twice a week and air out the house for awhile. The truth is, even when I am home there is not much to do. She is usually finished in under 3 hours. She wants to work full-time (well, she wants to be paid full time) and has offered to come 3 mornings, or to come everyday to cook, but I really don’t need her any more. Even with 2 mornings a week, she sometimes gets bored and does things like take all of my toiletries off my cabinet (where, I supposed, they looked cluttered) and put them in a box under my bed. Okay, yes, it looked neater, but they were up there because I use them, so I had to put them all back out. We also had an ongoing, unspoken battle over the organization of my bookshelf. I originally organized it by topic, but I would come home to find it organized by size, or by color. I would put them back like I wanted, only for her to put them back like she wanted. I think we have finally reached a detente, though:

Books stay on the shelf I want, but in the order she wants.  Everyone happy.  Basically.

Books stay on the shelf I want, but in the order she wants. Everyone happy. Basically.

Despite these little annoyances, I really love Ibu Ita. I mean, she folds my underwear (and used to iron it, until I told her to stop!) It is so nice to come home to a clean house and freshly washed laundry twice a week, and especially after being away traveling. I don’t miss doing laundry or cleaning my house at all. It’s going to be a rough adjustment heading home… but there is Chipotle there, so I think I’ll make it.

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