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.

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