Purring Cats and other Nicaraguan Superstitions

Irrelevant photo of a swan made from a recycled tyre

This week we finally started our proper construction work, and we have now built the bases of half the eco stoves and one is totally complete (you have to build them in two stages). Building eco stoves involved laying bricks, digging holes, yielding pick axes, mixing concrete with spades (no cement mixers), spreading concrete up the walls and carrying lots of heavy things around. Regular fans may not be surprised to hear that I’ve never done any of these things before. Based on previous experience of any time I’ve ever had to do anything remotely related to physical labour, I was expecting to be a total liability on the construction site. However it turns out that mixing cement is 90% positive attitude, so this is now my favourite job. Nevertheless, my body ACHES from the physical exertion, right from my toes to my temples. Predictably, the Nica volunteers (who don’t have arms, they just have HUGE GUNS) barely break a sweat. They don’t need gyms in rural Nicaragua. Basically from birth the kids are carrying water, hacking firewood, riding horses (bareback), or doing stuff like washing clothes, grinding coffee and making tortillas by hand. Add this to a recent history of extensive civil war and you get a country full of people who are physically and mentally STRONG.

It is the question of strength that has led me to my new favourite hobby, which is trying to unearth as many Nicaraguan beliefs and superstitions as possible. It began when two of the British girls were carrying a bag of rocks to the ecostove the other day, and the Nicas were appalled. “Don’t carry that! Its too heavy!” They cried. “You will damage your womb!”. I have no idea if that has any scientific evidence behind it. I’m going to assume it doesn’t, but on the other hand those bags of rocks are REALLY heavy.

Then later that day, I was talking to Olga, one of the representatives from our partner Nicaraguan organisation which is called ASUMOPRO (Association of Women Producers). I really like Olga. She’s one of the founding members of ASUMOPRO. Eight years ago she said they had a dream of making an organisation that was owned by women, and now they have almost 2000 members across the country. She told me yesterday that she bought herself 30 ” manzanas” of land on credit (that’s the Nicaraguan measurement, it means apples and I have no idea how big it is but I’ve been assuming it means an acre). She said its a huge problem in Nicaragua that women don’t own land, its always in the name of their husbands. The man in the house we were building asked her, what about your husband? And she said with a patient smile “I don’t have a husband.” It seemed like a question she’s been asked a lot over the years.

Anyway, I was talking to her about a cat that our team leader (who is British) found on a bus and has adopted as a pet. We were talking about how the cat had a lot of fleas. Olga nodded gravely, and said to me conspiratorially “and you know, that cat makes this vibrating sound all the time…” And she imitated the cat purring. She shook her head sadly and said about our leader, “she doesn’t realise that when cats do that, they give humans illnesses!”. What, when they purr?! I said. Olga nodded seriously, then she chuckled to herself and rolled her eyes. ” She thinks the cat is happy!” It turns out, in Nicaragua, if your cat starts purring you put it outside and worry that you might catch pneumonia from it!

Our Nicaraguan team leader also has shared unexpected ideas with me. When we visited in the other volunteer group in their town of Parcila, which is so hot its like entering the GATES OF HELL, I bought a cold drink and put the bottle against my face to cool down. Claudia was like, “no, Sarah! That’s bad for you, stop it!” This was really upsetting as it felt so good, but now I’m like, is it bad for you or not?! It really makes me question myself.

Then last night we were making pancakes for pancake day, Claudia was flipping pancakes in a pan and burnt herself on the edge. “Oh no,” I said
“Go and put some cold water on it!”. Claudia guffawed and said sarcastically ” yeah, good idea Sarah!” I was like, no really Claudia, you should put cold water on burns. And she laughed at me and shook her head dismissively. It was the kind of laugh I’d do if some crazy foreign person told me to put my hand back in a fire to cure a burn. Turns out in Nicaragua they think that putting water on burns will make it come up in a huge bump. They also think that if you get a burn or a cut or something that will scar, it depends on the phase of the moon as to whether the scar will heal or not.

Our team doctor who lives in the capital told us there’s a lot of traditional medicine in rural areas and he said we should ignore it all, so I assume he (and lots of other Nicaraguans) don’t believe the old wives tales. But I find them totally fascinating. And it sure explains why all the cats here are so miserable, if they’re never allowed to purr!

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