Wednesday, February 24, 2010

How to Be Healthy

When I go on visits to people in my community, a very popular topic of conversation is the fact that I run in the mornings. Running – or really doing any kind of deliberate exercise – is a very gringo thing to do, and as such is something of a curiosity in my town. People ask a lot of questions. I love it because their questions teach me a lot about local beliefs, and answering them challenges me to be clear about what exactly it is that I believe.

For example, many Nicaraguans have beliefs about hot and cold and being careful not to mix them. When I get back from a run I am warned not to drink water or take a shower right away, as the effect of cool water on my warm body will “hacer dano” – do me harm. (I’m still not sure what kind of harm exactly.) This same warning, I’ve learned, applies to men who are working out in the fields. These guys will often spend the whole day out in the sun without drinking any water. Sometimes, men that I pass on the road while I’m running will say things like, “You’re going to dehydrate yourself” or “You’re going to get tired” in addition to the usual piropos – “ay, que linda”, “mi amor”, etc. These comments always struck me as being kind of strange since getting tired is kind of the point when you’re out running, but when you realize that it’s not customary to drink water after physical activity, it makes more sense that these guys would say such things. Going out and working up a sweat could actually be kind of dangerous.

Recently, one of the community members that I work with asked me, “What is this running for? Is it to lose weight or to gain weight?”
“Well,” I said, “I guess if you’re fat you would lose weight, but if you’re skinny you might gain weight. It’s not really for either one. It’s more to keep your heart healthy.”
“And how does it do that?” he asked. “Why is it better than walking like we’re doing now?” We were on our way to a community meeting.
“Walking is good too,” I explained, “but running makes your heart beat harder, and that’s good for it.”
He seemed satisfied with my explanation, more satisfied than I was. It was actually difficult for me to come up with reasons for why I hold what is for me a very basic belief - that vigorous cardio-vascular exercise is good for me.

My host family also loves to talk about my running. My host mom, Ester, often asks me how far I’ve gone, or makes fun of me for the fact that I come back red-faced and sweaty. Though she does not exercise herself, Ester at least seems to hold the belief that exercise is good for you. It seems that some of the more overweight women in this town have been advised by the doctor at the health post to walk for at least 30 minutes a day in order to burn off some excess fat. “They’re lazy, though. They don’t do it,” Ester tells me. “I try to teach my students” – she is a teacher at the school – “that it’s good to exercise. I tell them to run with their mouths closed.” I’m not sure why this is so important, but Ester brings it up every time we talk about running. Anyway, at least we are in general agreement about the benefits of exercise.
“No, Laurie, people here don’t take very good care of themselves,” she says. I nod along. We’ve had this conversation many times. “It’s the same with women who have given birth. They’re lazy. The ones that really take care of themselves don’t drink water for 40 days.”
What? Now this is new information. “Excuse me, they don’t drink water for 40 days?”
“No,” Ester informs me. “Only pinol [a hot drink made from ground corn] and pinolillo [the same thing but with cocoa]. And they don’t eat beans or eggs. Only tortillas and roasted chicken.”
Really? “Really?”
“Yep, and they wrap a towel around their heads and they don’t get out of bed for 40 days. And if they have any pain in their vientre [uterus] they drink guaro[liquor].”
Okay, now really I have no idea what to say, since this conversation about taking care of oneself by exercising has now changed into something else entirely. “That’s interesting,” I say,” because doctors in the US say pretty much the opposite – that women should drink milk and water and definitely not drink liquor and that they should eat a varied diet with all the normal things in it.”
“Oh, the doctors here say that too, but we know that the old ways protect the women. The lazy ones go ahead and eat everything, but the ones that really want to take care of themselves, they do it the traditional way.”

It is easy to think that these beliefs are flat out wrong, and that part of my job is to debunk what to me are myths that are keeping people less healthy than they could be. But when I’m sitting at a woman’s kitchen table talking to her, how can I launch into a lecture about how her deepest beliefs about her health are wrong? That just seems rude and uncalled for, not to mention ineffective. Besides, I am interested in where these beliefs come from. I wonder if they may have at one time had a protective effect on a population that didn’t have easy access to clean water or sufficient calories. So I continue to do what I have learned to do here, which is to live the way I think is healthy, to talk about it when I’m asked, to listen when people talk about their own beliefs about health, and to keep off my soapbox as much as possible.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Join the Peace Corps

Every Peace Corps blogger has to at some point give an endorsement of the experience. I’ve been waiting to give mine until I had finished the parts people say are most difficult – training and the first three months in site. Well, I am six months in site now, almost seven, and I can honestly say that I highly, highly recommend this experience. If you are reading this and thinking about applying, or if you’ve applied and are deciding whether to actually do it, here is my advice to you: DO IT. Especially if you are a bit older, as in older than 22. At 28 I am the oldest volunteer in my group who is not a retiree. But I actually think that the 4 or 5 years I have on most of my colleagues make a difference in a good way.

I think I’ve said before in this blog that I view this whole experience as a sort of extended meditation. It is a meditation in the sense that I simply cannot escape myself, and so I am forced to deal with what I am finding out about myself (mostly good, but not all). Also, the task of trying to help people is profoundly spiritual in that it causes you to constantly question everything you thought was true. Any time I think it is important for someone else to change their behavior – whether it be to start eating more vegetables, to grow a garden, or to wash their hands more thoroughly – I have to ask myself, “Why do I think this is important? Does this other person think this is important? If not, why not?” I have learned to really resist the urge to lecture, or to be the annoying gringa who’s always saying, “You know, in the United States we do this better.”

Apart from being a great spiritual challenge the Peace Corps has been great for my writing. In between gently coaxing people into working with me – basically drinking lots of sweet coffee and sugary fruit-based beverages in people’s homes – I have plenty of time to work on my novel. (Yes, I am writing a novel.) I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but I do want to give a little sampling. The whole thing came out of the question, “What would it take for things in the suburban US to work the way they work here in Nicaragua?” From there I invented an adventure story based on a family that has been separated.

Outside, Steve heard a noise. A pickup truck was driving slowly past the house. A man with a megaphone sat in the truck bed hawking wares. “Batteries! Electronics! We have walkmans, we have solar panels! We have blenders, toasters, radios!” Some of the neighbors had come out to take a look. The truck pulled to a stop in front of the next door neighbors’ house.
“Hey, Judy, do we need anything from the electronics truck?” Steve asked.
“No, nothing I can think of.”
Steve decided to check out the merchandise anyway. He knew the family that ran this particular business. The man with the megaphone was the son of the man driving the truck. The driver was a tinkerer who had spent his whole life collecting broken appliances and parts, thinking that one day they would come in handy. Finally, they had.

Outside, a small crowd of neighbors had gathered to look at the goods. The back of the truck looked like a junkyard. Toasters were piled up in one corner, blenders and food processors in another. The metal railings around the truck bed were lined with wires and cables and cords of all description. There were old television sets and laptop computers. Anything you could imagine, as long as it had a plug. Steve felt nostalgic looking at all of these appliances and electronics. Some of the toasters must be at least 30 years old. Even the older laptops looked like antiques. The sheer abundance of the stuff reminded him of a time when people plugged in whatever they wanted whenever they wanted to and didn’t think twice about it.

Like I said, just a taste. And if anyone reading this knows anything about book publishing, give me a holler.

Thursday, February 11, 2010


Last night I took my first salsa class in a year – that’s right, people, a year. It was incredible. And not only was it a great class, it was a Cuban-style class. And since I didn’t have a partner, I got to dance with the teacher. Amazing.

The classes are held in the posh Vivian Pellas gym, which is owned by the richest woman in Nicaragua. As far as I can tell, these classes constitute the entirety of the salsa scene in Nicaragua, since I saw everyone that I met the one time I successfully went out salsa dancing in Managua.

I was on a total high after the class, until a guy I had met dancing those several months ago came up to me and said, “Are you looking a bit more ‘hermosa’ than the last time I saw you?” ‘Hermosa’ translates literally as ‘gorgeous or lovely’, but in Nicaragua it means something like ‘big and beautiful. Ergo, “more ‘hermosa’” basically means “fatter”.

So I said, “Hey, I’ve been in this country for a while now, and I know a thing or two. I know what hermosa is. You mean I got more gordita.”
And he said, “No, I didn’t say that. I said hermosa.”

Sadly, this guy is no the first person to tell me that I’m looking a bit more big and beautiful these days, even though as far as I can tell I haven’t changed since I got here. I think it may be some kind of compliment. But to my gringo mind, fatter is definitely not more beautiful. “Más hermosa” seems like a pretty backhanded compliment to me. But then again, maybe it is my perspective that is messed up. Maybe I should be embracing the fact that in Nicaragua women are considered more attractive with a little more junk in the trunk. Maybe instead of trying to cut back on carbs (as if there were anything else to eat) I can just roll with it. More beautiful. I can live with that.

Friday, February 5, 2010


While my brother was visiting me we got in the habit of writing haikus about the little quirks of Nicaraguan life, basically taking verbal snapshots. Here is a sampling:

Bomb blast? Guns shooting?
No, just kids with fire-crackers
Loud noise equals joy (1)

If he doesn’t know
He’ll still tell you where to go
“Siga más recto” (2)

Asleep in the street
You have been drinking guaro
Where is your left shoe? (3)

Don’t get on that bus!
Everyone has a chicken
You don’t want bird flu (4)

Chicken on a plane
Hope you’re not afraid to fly
Buckle up, chicken (5)

What is this music?
Reminds me of the eighties
That’s the clásicos (6)

Once these socks were white
But washed on a cement slab
All my socks turn grey (7)

1. People here associate loud noise with joy. It doesn’t matter if the noise is pleasant – as in the case of nice music – or annoying – as with the cheap fire-crackers that every kid seems to have a stash of. It’s all considered joyful. It’s surprising to me that in a country that has known civil war the sound of a bomb connotes joy. But that’s how it is.

2. As a general rule, Nicaraguans are very friendly and helpful. Which is great, except when they don’t know the answer to the question you’re asking. This haiku was inspired by the experience my family had trying to find the Laguna de Apoyo, a crater lake near the city of Granada. We took a wrong turn and ended up on the worst road any of us had ever seen. You know how it is when you’ve gone the wrong way, though. After a certain point it seems like a better idea to keep going than to turn around. At any rate, every time we saw anyone walking or driving a donkey cart or riding a horse we would ask them if they knew how to get to the lake. Without fail, every person said, “Oh, you’re not too far. Siga más recto.” [Keep going straight.] Which we did, and eventually we got there. But it was definitely the long way.

3. Some people (including the author of the Moon guidebook) consider Nicaragua to be the Wild West of Central America. An unfortunate similarity to the Old West is that many Nicaraguans, especially men, are a bit too fond of the sauce. In some communities (not mine, thankfully) Sunday is the day to get drunk on guaro, aka moonshine. By Sunday evening, guys are passed out all over the place.

4. Riding the local buses is a colorful experience, in more ways than one. First of all, the buses are literally colorful. The collectives that run them – usually a groups of brothers or cousins – manage to turn old Blue Bird school buses from the States into traveling works of art, most often featuring religious iconography and/or celebrities. While he was here my brother Joe took a picture of a bus with huge, side-by-side pictures of Jesus and John Claude Van Damme in the front windows. Also, people transport all kinds of things on the buses – furniture, fruits and vegetables, and small animals. The latter has led some people to call these buses “chicken buses”.

5. Related to (4) and inspired by Joe’s trip to the Atlantic Coast. While he was waiting for his plane, we saw a passenger whose carry-on was a tied up sack. He put the sack down, and it started to move. Then it started to cluck.

6. Many Nicaraguans unabashedly love American 80s music. Even my too-cool-for-school host brother regularly watches Bon Jovi and Michael Jackson music videos. Based on my travel experience, I think people almost everywhere in the world (including France) love 80s music, except in the US (where people secretly love it but are embarrassed to admit it). The English music radio stations here play exclusively 80s music, which they call “los clásicos”.

7. This one is self-explanatory.