In the United States, the word “homebody” is often used with a negative connotation. I have heard it used to describe (in varying degrees) someone who chooses to not leave their house, doesn’t socialize, lacks the desire to explore and learn new things…basically someone with no ¨life.¨
In Nicaragua, the opposite is true.
Nicaraguans have a word - vago/a - which is used for people who are constantly out and about in the street; traveling, walking, chatting…basically being anywhere but their home. If one is called a vago it is not a compliment. It is usually a term used for men, since women are rarely vagas. (They are too busy doing chores of the home).
The family home in Nicaragua is really the foundation for life here. Often up to 12 people live in a single house, and that is where you can find most of the family members all day, unless they happen to be at school, work, or running an errand to the nearby store to buy a few eggs.
On any given night, anywhere from two to five people sleep in any one room, or even in any one bed. Nicaraguans find it odd that anyone would ever want to sleep alone. A fellow volunteer in Nicaragua told me that her neighbors were worried about her when she recently moved into her own house. ¨The who do you sleep with? ¨ little neighbor girls asked her anxiously.
Houses here are like the worn clothing that Nicaraguans wear: used in multiple generations, washed frequently, but ultimately very poor. The house and its contents are well known and well cared for. Houses are small and the amount of people living in them large. These small spaces have to be maintained with the organizational skills and dedication required to maintain a spaceship I would imagine. The inventory of the house (amount of food, number of chairs, amount of laundry to be washed, how many brooms/mops there are and where they are located, the amount of dish soap left…) is known by most members (the women) of the house. Wrath will ensue if the mother of the house realizes that a pound of beans or a piece of cheese, or something more valuable such as meat or fruit have gone missing. The day’s consumption by every single member of the house will then have to be retraced as she searches for how this could have gone awry. Who took it? Who got greedy? Food is a commodity in many areas of the country and people in my site are not quite as generous with it as the Latin stereotype would have us believe.
In my host family’s house in any one day, every dish and utensil is used (often more than once), every surface touched, cleaned, and used…Every chair sat on, every floor swept, walked on and swept again. The common areas are always being rearranged for a different use. One day the living room serves as a mini-movie theatre for Spanish soap operas, the next it is a workspace to make piñatas, and the next, 30 chairs have suddenly appeared for a neighborhood committee meeting. There is constant movement in this limited space.
When there are rare moments of rest, rather than choosing to leave the home to socialize or participate in community events, the family settles themselves in their finest plastic chairs to cultivate the fine art of watching. Nicaraguans are expert sitters and watchers. They observe the world going by them, usually from their porch or from inside their house with an eye out the closest door or window. Friends are greeted, food bought from walking vendors, weather commented on, and gossip exchanged - all from the comfort of one’s own home. Why leave your chair when there is a man who will come right to your door selling fresh vegetables, warm tamales, or even children’s clothing? Why be a vago when all the people you really want to socialize with (your family) are all right here?
But this culture of homebody-ness also brings annoyances. Every word, conversation, argument, piece of gossip, or question uttered in the house is heard by all members of said house. Walls are thin if nonexistent and everyone knows everything that is going on in everyone else’s lives. Privacy is a foreign word here, but it is not missed. A large part of how Nicaraguans define themselves is based upon their family. It is not seen as intruding when, for example, a 24-year-old man’s mother demands to see his cell phone to read the text messages exchanged by him and his girlfriend the previous night (yes, this happened in my host family). Why not? He might think. My mother has just as much of a say in this relationship as I do…
I´ve been struggling with this homebody concept, and sometimes I feel as if the house is suffocating me. (I have yet to find my own place to move into). There are only so many times you can look at the same people, walk over the same surfaces and discuss the same topics (how many beans will we buy today? What time do you think it will rain today?) before you can begin to go a little stir-crazy. Although hey, I am from Alaska. I´m used to being pent-up indoors for literally months at a time avoiding sub-zero temperatures, but at least then I didn´t have a choice in that matter. Here, where the weather is in the high 80s F every day, I feel guilty when I´m not out enjoying it.
When I am inside my home, I often ¨fake¨ my homebody-ness to blend-in; while pretending to sit and watch life go by, I am internally planning a training on HIV/AIDS in my head, or I steal away to a corner to read a book while they think I am napping. This undercover productivity keeps me sane.
Right now, I am at the local high school using their computers to investigate some health statistics and write in my blog. I´m going home for lunch in a few minutes, and will probably return to see the mother of the house and her daughter seated in the exact same positions that they were in when I left them four hours ago. We´ll all be happy about our respective morning’s activities, but of course for different reasons.