I’m going to try and be extra careful not to be offensive in this post, but I’m afraid I might toe a fine line should any of my Nica cohorts read this.

First off, I’d like to say that Nicaraguans are not stupid.  I think a lot of volunteers, especially those working in education; can easily get really down on Nicaraguan intelligence.  I’m one of many that will bemoan persistent but basic spelling errors, the need for shopkeepers to take out a calculator to perform even the most basic calculations (hint: 10 + 6 is 16.  The way you say both ‘ten plus six’ and ‘sixteen’ is ‘ten and six’) or the awkward bastardization of some words (‘dijieron’, ‘componido’, ‘hace’ – where they pronounce the ‘h’, ‘haiga’ as in ‘no creo que haiga nadie’ – it should be ‘haya’).  But I don’t think this makes them stupid.  I think a big cause of the spelling errors is due to the fact that reading is practically unheard of (be it books, newspaper, magazine, etc. – anything other than a text message) and I expect this has a bigger impact on orthography than most people think.  The math I think is a combination of fear of making a mistake when it comes to money and a fear of looking like an idiot.  I think math is also considered this abominable subject that only the most brilliant can understand, and an early lack of self-confidence makes the idea of learning math outside rote memorization an insurmountable endeavor.   The ‘bad wording’ is a cultural thing.  You repeat what you hear.  A lot of the mistakes I listed earlier are based on logical conclusions based on the behavior of other words. In these cases however, the words are somewhat irregular (past participle of an ‘- ir’ verb is formed by adding ‘-ido’ to the stem, except in the case of componer, it should be ‘compuesto’).  If no one corrects you, and everyone else says it, the word seems right, and really whether or not it is in fact wrong could be a lengthy discussion.

Even in a developed country like the US, with a far better (but obviously still not great) educational system, I think we can see a lot of the same issues.  One of my favorite things to stumble upon online are silly grammatical mistakes that radically change the meaning from what was intended, and there are websites devoted to this very concept.  The book “Eats, Shoots, and Leaves” has a great collection of them.  I saw a bumper sticker on Facebook the other day that nicely sums this problem up.  It read, ‘Grammar: The difference between knowing your shit, and knowing you’re shit.’   I think lots of people in the US struggle with math, albeit not to the same extent here.  Nevertheless, I remember math teachers in elementary school and up responding to questions like “why do I need to learn this if I can just do it on a calculator?” with an inevitable variation of “are you going to walk around with a calculator in your pocket everywhere you go?”  Of course, the answer to this now would be, “As a matter of fact, yes.  And my calculator will also be able to search Wolfram Alpha and solve algebraic equations for me.  Or should I need, I could call a friend for help with my calculator, or immediately compare the price of the product I’m considering buying to that of competing stores.”  Still, from what I see here, I still think the teacher was right, and I’m glad I can do basic arithmetic quickly in my head.  As for ‘bad words’, we’ve got plenty of that too.  While I think it may generally be considered an particularly southern affliction, it’s not completely unheard of for someone to say ‘broked’, ‘runned’, ‘aks’ (instead of ‘ask’), ‘liberry’ (instead of library) in any part of the country.  And it’s pretty much generally acceptable now to not pronounce the first ‘r’ in the word ‘February’.

But this post isn’t about whether or not Nicaraguans are fundamentally smarter or stupider than any other nation, or about similarities in common errors made by either populace.  This post is about creenciasCreencia literally translates as ‘belief’, and is essentially a superstition, myth, or old wives tale.  However, I think it’s important to note the choice of words.  I would say that most people in the States know a great number of superstitions.  But even if someone follows a superstition, they’re usually aware that it’s nonsense.  I may blow on dice before I roll them, but I’m doing it for fun, not because I actually believe it changes the probability.  A baseball player may go through some ridiculous routine for every at-bat but most people recognize this as a psychological ritual, and not as though the movements themselves have an effect.    Myths are a little different in that they are something that we believe, but are willing to accept that they are not true.  I can prove to someone that it is a myth that eating pop rocks and drinking Coca-Cola will make your stomach explode, and afterwards they will change their thoughts on the subject.  Mythbusters has made a career out of doing just that.  Old wives tales are usually a little trickier, because they tend to be based on some sense.  However this sense can be easily lost because of the eccentric means of achieving a desired end.  Sometimes the purpose of an action can be lost and mutated into something silly.  For example, when curing hiccups, there are many proposed solutions.  Some say hold your breath, have someone scare you, drink from the opposite side of a glass of water, etc.  Essentially they are all trying to do the same thing; they are trying to change your breathing pattern.  So, it’s all well and good, that they achieve the end they want, but without identifying specifically what the means are.  However, if someone were to extrapolate and say inhale carbon dioxide, watch a suspense-thriller (without any ‘boo!’ scenes) or eat a burger with your head upside down, these solutions are similar to the aforementioned ones, but have forgotten the main idea.  As such, they’re just weird distortions of a good idea.

Creencias are somewhat different in Nicaragua, mostly in that people follow a superstition not for fun, or ‘just in case’ but because it is in fact a heartfelt belief.  Even those that are myths are hard to dispel, as some can’t be easily demonstrated to be false either because they require a lot of time to prove one way or the other, are too complicated to explain, or are too costly/problematic (like showing a girl can get pregnant by whatever strange means supposedly prevents it).

I decided to take a survey of 100 Nica volunteers (read: all the volunteers in my phonebook that responded).  I asked them what their favorite creencia was, and present the following list of Nica creencias.  I’ve categorized them by topic as best I could.  These creencias are not universal even within Nicaragua.  Some of the more outrageous ones only tend to be found in smaller, rural regions, while others are basically doctrine, and may very well be taught in primary school for all I know

1.       Food related

These tend to be the most harmless and are followed less vehemently than other creencias.  I think some of them may even have a touch of truth it them.

  • Avocado causes acne.

This could potentially have some truth to it.  Avocados are pretty fatty and could clog up pores.  Masturbation is also said to cause acne.  Oddly enough I only hear this with relation to males.  Maybe no one even considers the idea of female masturbation.

  • Avocado is an aphrodisiac.

I have to say this is nonsense.  But to be fair, in the states we also say oysters are an aphrodisiac, and I’ve never felt any effect from eating oysters, nor have I noticed anything to suggest otherwise when others eat them.

  • If you want to lose weight, eat garlic.  It burns fat.
  • Do not point at plants you are growing, it will cause them to die.

I think the origin was something like, “a watched pot never boils”, but the thought of jinxing a plant can be pretty serious business.

  • Do not eat pineapple/mangoes/drink coconut water/juice after five pm.  It will make you sick/give you a sore throat.

This one is pretty serious.  Nicas will gasp at the idea of it.

  • Beware people ashing cigarettes in your drink.  Cigarette ash in a drink is pretty much equivalent to a roofy.

Once during a session on alcohol consumption during our service, our director of security warned us about leaving our drink unattended.  He then said how we need to be careful in case anyone might tip a bit of cigarette ash in our drink.  I had to assume that an educated man, whose job is to be responsible for these kinds of scenarios (among many others) wouldn’t believe this, and simply confused his English.  This turns out to be a strongly held belief.  I’ve tried to argue that if that were so, why wouldn’t alcoholics and drug addicts simply buy one beer and one cigarette to get really high all day?  As this usually is not sufficient evidence, I have drunk my fair share of cigarette ash in an attempt to dispel it.

  • All the Coca-Cola in the world is produced in one large annual batch by witches.  Said witches sacrifice a human into the batch.

….Yeah.  Presumably the advice that goes with it is ‘don’t drink Coca-Cola’.

2.       Witchcraft

Speaking of witches….

  • You need to sleep with your clothes inside out to prevent someone from putting you under a spell to perform their witchcraft.

This one isn’t very common and is pretty remote.  I don’t imagine many people believe in it and it’s probably something said to scare little kids.  I assume this has to have some kind of purposeful origin that got lost along the way.  Maybe it was to make kids shake out their clothes/bedding before going to sleep (to get rid of any bugs/scorpions, etc.)

  • Beware duendes (elves/gnomes/dwarves).  They steal children. The only way to recover the child is for the whole neighborhood needs to get together to sing constantly.

This one is also pretty isolated.  Most people know what duendes are, but I think they’re considered as real for most people as elves and gnomes are in the states.  My guess is that somebody’s child was kidnapped and so a story was created to make the family feel better.  And then the neighborhood got together in solidarity.

3.       Animals, Fictitious Animals

Duendes aren’t the only fictitious animal.  Some of these are not as vehemently adhered to as other creencias and are seen for their absurdity.  However some still constitute supposedly very sound advice.

  • If you are bitten by a snake, don’t tell anyone.  It will make the venom work faster.

I also imagine this to be a distorted old wives tale.  Freaking out and screaming about the snake bite will increase one’s heart rate and thus make the venom pump faster through the veins.  However, I’ve heard this creencia taken pretty seriously, to the point where the victim wouldn’t even tell the doctor what was wrong with him after being bit in the leg.  Supposedly the man only said “my leg hurts”.

  • If you are bitten by a snake, bite the snake back three times.

This seems just as dangerous as the last one, because, as I see it, trying to bite the snake will just give you more chances of getting bitten again.  I’m not sure what the purported benefit of biting the snake is.  At least it makes you pretty manly, and shows the snake who’s boss.

  • Keep toads near your house, they are a good luck charm to ward off thieves.

This is likely a ‘rain on your wedding day’ type deal.  Say something crappy is lucky so that you can rationalize its presence.  The volunteer who told me this said she heard the creencia from her host brother, who then proceeded to rob her in the presence of many toads.

  • Animals shouldn’t be slaughtered on a full moon.  The moon will suck up the blood.

I don’t really know what to make of this one.  I’m not really sure why less blood at a slaughter would be bad, or how this is not easily dispelled.  I’m not even sure I believe that people believe this.

  • Spitting on a puppy is good luck.

It’s not really clear to me for whom.  Nevertheless, someone spit on my friends dog as a friendly gesture.  For more on the powers of saliva, see below under the “babies” category.

  • Watch out for Sisimique (bigfoot) lives in the mountain will come down and take you as his mate.  He also punches wild boars to death.

I also have to believe this one to be relatively isolated.  Still, it was heard as a warning from the Evangelical pastor of a town.  So there’s that.

  • Watch out for La Mona – a person who turns into a monkey and hangs out on your roof at night to scare you.

This one is actually not very isolated, and a few volunteers in sites of varying size and location have told me of the same one.  I’ve personally never heard of la mona, and can’t say how serious people take the warning.

  • Rats crawl up into trees and fold themselves into cocoons.  They eventually emerge as bats.

“Jacobo, there are many things that science can prove, but this is one area it has not studied sufficiently.”

  • There are sea monsters/a kraken/whirl pool/ghosts of indigenous Nicaraguans in the center of the Laguna de Apoyo that pull down and drown people.

I have to base this on the fact that a surprisingly large number of Nicaraguans do not know how to swim and have attributed drowning to such events.

4.       Hot/Cold Related Injuries

This is essentially one creencia, but it is far and away the most prevalent in Nicaraguaand taken more seriously than any other.  Essentially the idea is that if there is any relatively rapid change between touching something hot or being hot to touching something cold/being cold one will get sick and/or die.  This is usually a problem when it comes to bathing (since the water is always cold).

  • When you watch TV, the images make your eyes hot.  Therefore, if you bathe after watching TV, you’ll slowly go blind.
  • Showering after running or exercising will basically kill you.
  • Washing your face after running or exercising will cause your eyes to fall out of your head.

This was vehemently confirmed by various sources.  This leads me to consider the possibility that someone’s eyes actually did fall out of their head, although I highly doubt it was a result from cold water.

  • If you bake in the morning and wash clothes or dishes you will get sick and likely die.

Like I said, these are all pretty serious creencias.  I worked with a group of women who started a bakery but refused to do the baking themselves.  They insisted that they needed to hire a baker to come in and do nothing other than start the oven, put trays in and take them out.  They agreed on a payment system where each worker was guaranteed 50 córdobas worth of product for every day they work, and then divide any residual income for the day.  The baker charges 100 córdobas, cash, every day, for what amounts to relatively very little work.  I tried to explain to them how much this affected their income, but the creencia is indeed very strongly held.  This works the same if it’s any mix of hot and cold activities (ironing and taking something from the refrigerator, washing dishes and starting a fire, etc.)  It’s not yet clear to me how much time needs to pass in order to be able to touch something of an opposing temperature again.

  • Being hot can also gives you an “evil eye” (see the “babies” category below for more on the evil eye).

5.       Pregnancy/Feminine Hygiene/General Health

A lot of the volunteers I know work in the health sector.  I think dealing with creencias is a bigger part of their work lives than it is mine.  Myths about sexual reproductive health and snake oil recipes are abundant in both the States and in Nicaragua.  Let’s take a look at some of the more interesting ones they mentioned to me.

  • Do not eat eggs or beans during or immediately after a pregnancy.  This can harm the mother.
  • Not eating a pregnancy craving can cause a miscarriage
  • Can’t pick vegetables while pregnant, the extra hormones kill the plants
  • Do not eat beans during your period.  It will harm you.

This is one of those creencias that is particularly worrisome because it is the exact opposite of good advice.  Beans are a great source of iron, something which a woman loses during her menstrual period.

  • Do not eat citrus if you have a cold.

Same deal, vitamin C is exactly what you do want to be consuming when you have a cold.

  • If you use an IUD, you will have a baby born with an IUD implanted in its forehead.

It would seem that this creencia also doesn’t believe in the effectiveness of an IUD to prevent pregnancy.

  • You can’t get pregnant having sex standing up.
  • You can’t get pregnant with a virgin girl.
  • Standing near a horse after surgery can be fatal.
  • If you burn your finger, rub it in your hair.

There may be some sense to this, in that it keeps your mind off the pain or something.  Not any worse than just squeezing your finger with your other hand.  Of course this needs to be taken with a grain of salt, depending on the severity of the burn.

  • If you have an earache or pressure in your jaw, take a tunnel of rolled up newspaper and burn it in your ear.

I have not seen this but my friend promises me pictures.

6.       Babies

Closely related to the previous section is the wealth of creencias related to infants.  There is probably something notable about the relatively high number of creencias in this category.  These vary in the level in which they are obeyed.  However, they are certainly not exclusive to the exceptionally poor, uneducated or remote sites.  I think many people don’t totally believe in them, but would just as soon not take the chance.

  • Do not look at babies on your period.  This can give the baby a learning disability, constipation, make the baby sick, and/or give it the evil eye.
  • The ‘evil eye’.   If someone gives a baby the evil eye, either the person who gave the baby the evil eye has to spit on the baby or the baby needs to be rubbed down in moonshine while someone prays the rosary over the baby.  Babies can also pass the evil eye on to small animals or other babies.

I’m not sure as to where the evil eye originate, however it is said if you are really hot from the sun and stare at a baby you can give it the evil eye, or simply make it sick/crazy/have learning disabilities.  Mentally disabled people can have the same effect.  Drunken men are also commonly suspected of carrying the evil eye.

  • Hung-over men should spit on your baby if they pass it.  This will help prevent your baby from becoming an alcoholic
  • If a baby has a fever, spitting on its face will help bring the fever down.
  • Rubbing gasoline on a sick baby’s belly will help it recover.
  • Burn a birds nest underneath a baby laying in a hammock.

It wasn’t made clear to me when this should be done.  I presume it’s for when the baby sick.  However, I’ll go ahead and make a cultural judgment and say that it’s never a good idea to light a fire under a sleeping infant.

  • Babies are born speaking English.  They forget it when they get older and learn Spanish.  Therefore, Americans can speak to babies.

More commonly believed than one might think.