Many local health beliefs in Nicaragua have to do with avoiding the mixing of hot and cold. For example, if you’ve just been working outside, you shouldn’t bathe right away or drink cold water. If you’re eating hot soup, you should have a hot drink with it instead of a cold one. If the floor is cool, you shouldn’t walk on it with your warm bare feet.
And people are fastidious about it. When my neighbor bakes, she gets “agitada” (agitated from heat) and cannot come outside for the rest of the day. Sometimes she’ll call me over to accept some rosquillas (corn cookies), and she’ll be standing in the doorway with a towel over her head (to keep the heat from escaping her body too quickly, I presume) holding out a dish of baked goods that I have to go over to get, since she can’t come out into the cool air. And it’s not even cool out. It never is.
On a “cold” day during “winter” the temperature may be around 75 during the day. Still people complain about how cold it is, they put on sweaters, they have respiratory infections, they drink soup, the works. I wish I could explain to people how cold it can get where I grew up. “You can put a glass of water outside and it will turn into ice. That cold,” I say. But it doesn’t seem to penetrate. How could it? How could you understand true cold if you’ve never lived in a place where houses needed insulation or central heating, or even a fireplace (apart from a cooking stove)? How could you understand a North American winter if the coldest night you know of is one that requires two thin blankets instead of one?
I laugh when people warn me about going to the colder parts of Nicaragua (mainly Jinotega, one of the nearby cities). “Oh, bring a sweater. Jinotega is ‘helado’ (icy).” Which is a joke, because nowhere in Nicaragua is icy, ever.
“I think I’ll be okay,” I say.
This word “helado” makes me laugh because people use it strange ways. I’ve heard people say that a fire is “helado” when food isn’t cooking fast enough, or even that the sun is “helado” on a cooler day. Clearly, we do not share an understanding of what constitutes iciness.
Often people describe illnesses according to hot and cold essences, sort of like humors or energies in the body. One day this week I saw my host mom with a piece of a plant tied around her ankle, and I asked her about it. “Too much heat,” she told me, and she explained that she had recently come down with an illness in which her left foot and ankle become inflamed, and she gets a fever and nausea. She told me the name of the illness in Spanish, but it was nothing I had heard of. “I have to put cold things on my foot to get rid of it. This is aloe. It’s very helado. I got this sickness once before and you know what cured me? Something even colder than aloe.”
“A toad. Wilmer (her son) is out looking for one right now. One time he found me a toad that was so cold, it was heladísimo! I rub it right here where my foot is inflamed.”
“And that works?”
“Yep, but the poor toad, afterwards he dies. Too much heat for him. He’s cold, and it kills him, the poor guy.”
My only response was the one word everyone teases me for saying constantly. “Wow.”