Saturday, March 6, 2010

Gift Economy

One of my favorite things about my town – and I imagine much of the Nicaraguan countryside is this way – is the way people give each other gifts. Whenever people have a bit extra of something, they give it away freely, especially food. My three closest neighbors (who are all part of my host family) have basically opened their kitchens to me. I eat all the beans and tortillas I want, and my neighbors won’t hear of taking payment from me. In addition to the staples, I receive baked goods whenever my neighbor Clara bakes, soup whenever my neighbor Marina kills a chicken, and now that it’s vegetable season I’ve been receiving little gifts of tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, cabbages, and watermelon. Sometimes I get a couple of freshly laid eggs or a ball of salty farmer’s cheese, all as regalos - gifts.

My one source of anxiety when it comes to this system is that I am not exactly sure how the accounts are kept. I receive so much, and I don’t know how much I am expected to give in return. At the very least people are not generally afraid to ask for things they know I have. It’s not uncommon at all – nor is it considered rude, unless you do it a lot - for people to say, “regáleme un poquito de eso” – give me a little bit of that. I keep certain spices in my kitchen that my neighbor Marina often comes to borrow. But still, I am not sure if I am holding up my end of the bargain, and people’s reluctance to accept money is part of a larger aversion to talking directly about what is owed. I’m sure I’m getting it wrong a lot of the time.

My gifts tend to be different, as well, from what my farming neighbors give to me. I give things like printed photos of their kids that I’ve taken with my digital camera, or pieces of chocolate that my parents have sent me, or once some glue traps for mice that Marina asked me for. She was going to pay me, but I insisted that they be a gift. Come to think of it, I have in some sense adopted the ways of my Nicaraguan neighbors when it comes to gifts. Marina asks me for a favor – can I pick up a mouse trap next time I’m at the supermarket in Esteli? – and then when I come back with it she asks how much she owes me. “Nada,” I say, “es un regalo.”

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