Hot vs. Cold (or “Hold the ice, I’ve been baking”)
Like any culture, Nicaraguans have traditional beliefs about health and what causes sickness that have been passed down for generations. Here, many of those beliefs are focused around the balance between hot and cold, or avoiding going from one extreme to another too quickly. For example, ironing with wet hair, or getting rained on after ironing would be extremely dangerous. If you have worked outside in the sun and come in for a drink of water, it better be lukewarm because a cold glass of water would ‘hacer daño’, do damage. A cup of coffee would be a better option.
I remember when I was a volunteer here eight years ago. My host mother was baking little pastries and she needed to get another ball of dough out of the refrigerator. I was already in bed, almost falling asleep when she got me up and asked me to get the dough out of the fridge. Because she was so ‘hot’ from baking, opening the fridge would be very dangerous for her. I was cool so it was fine for me.
Two weeks ago we had that family over to finally meet my parents during their visit to Nicaragua. When I asked everyone what they would like to drink with dinner, my former host mother asked for orange juice, and made it very clear it should be without ice, because “she had been baking.” She had probably wrapped up her cake-making over two hours before, but apparently she had still not fully returned to normal temperature. I’m sure she was horrified that both my mom and I, who had been working over the stove less than 5 minutes before, drank water with ice!
I’ve recently read a bit more about this (there are actually several medical journals about these cultural beliefs), and I find it fascinating that it’s not only the physical temperate of things that is important. Instead, in many cultures in Mexico, Central America and even in Haiti, people believe that some types of foods are intrinsically “hot” or “cold” based on how they react in the body. For example, some fruits can be hot (mangoes) while others are cold (citrus) regardless of the physical temperature they are at. Illnesses also are thought of as either hot or cold and should be treated by bringing the body back to equilibrium.
I love this anecdote from a Peace Corps volunteer in Nicaragua. To counteract an (hot) inflamed ankle, her host mother was looking for a (cold) toad!
I want to be a culturally sensitive person. But to me this seems to fly in the face of basic science and germ theory. It’s the old “don’t get stuck in the rain, you’ll get a cold” belief. Many people still have that belief in America too. It’s not the rain, it’s the cold virus that gives you a cold!
But then I stop and think about the sheer number of people who hold these beliefs and I feel so arrogant that I think they are all wrong. I mean, this hot/cold thing isn’t limited to Nicaragua. You see similar iterations of these beliefs throughout the Americas and Asia and the Middle East. So there’s got to be some nugget of truth in there, right? Or maybe there is some common thread or explanation why many cultures explain the world this way. I guess if you put it in perspective, germ theory is a relatively recent discovery compared to how long humans have been around. Maybe it shouldn’t surprise me that it will take a few more generations for it to spread. For some people, I imagine blaming invisible little creatures called ‘viruses’ that jump from person to person for sickness sounds just as silly and superstitious as the ‘evil eye’ does to me.
Just the other day our housekeeper was defrosting some chicken by putting it in lukewarm water. But the problem was she also had peeled carrots and potatoes and they were floating in the same water as the raw chicken. I told her that was not a good way for her to defrost chicken because the bacteria of the chicken could get on the vegetables. She looked at me like I was crazy. I guess it goes both ways.