We went to Nicaragua for a week, three days of which we stayed with a host family, each of us in a separate one. I stepped into a taxi with Samantha, my host-second cousin, who is two years old with big brown eyes, and my host mom, Susie. “Guantanamera” is soothingly blasting. Samantha is staring at me furtively from Susie’s lap, and my impulse is to smile and stare back, but I don’t want to seem creepy especially as a first impression in front of Susie. I abashedly look over at Samantha and she looks away and smiles and I look away and smile and then we both look at each other, catching our eyes in the other and we look away and smile and smile… and then I realize I’m supposed to be an adult and I try to plan what to say to Susie. The only think that comes to mind is asking her about her experience of the Samoza dictatorship or if she has a bean crop that has washed away in the flood as David has of course recommended we ask. I chuckle at the absurdity of these first questions. I do feel like an observer here, though, in this unknown world of strings of Spanish slurs without “s’s” and bright bold houses on steep cement block streets.
As I enter the house, my host sister (25) is stepping out of the bathroom covered only by a small towel and I choose to turn my head rather than awkwardly say hi. There are supposedly three ways that latin americans customarily greet each other. Girls meeting girls hug and kiss on the cheek, guys meeting girls hug and kiss on the cheek, and guys meeting guys shake hands. I am still shy and awkward at greetings, not knowing if a particular greeting is just temporary and I should remain seated if I am so and only say hi, or other times, I will reach out a hand out of instinct to be met by a hand clasp that turns into an awkward half hug and someone kissing my cheek. Anyway, it is usually awkward for me, whatever happens or does not happen.
Mancho, my host brother, who looks around my age and is a handsome, muscle-y brown-skinned guy, is there, seated on the couch. I quickly decide that this must be a real greeting, he is my brother after all, and I stick out my hand. I am not ready, though, for any sort of tricky boy handshake. We grab hands, and I am focused on making sure my grip is firm and strong enough, while Mancho re-orients his hand so that his fingers slide around to grasp the top of my hand, and I am still trying to make sure that my fingers are mimicking his in a mirror image as he is pulling me in for a boy hug, arms blocking our chests, one arm extending around the other to pat each other’s backs once firmly. I am excited to be included in this boy mannerism but nervous that it is tenuous, that he will discover that I’m not a boy like him, and then how will we interact? So we sit on the coach watching TV, and I make sure that my ankle is resting on my opposite knee, legs wide, slouching deep in my seat. Dinner is ready for us and we sit side by side at the table, still watching the TV from a distance. I, with my fork and knife, cut into an egg-like mound on a corn tortilla. Mancho grasps the tortilla and egg in a sandwich-like fashion; he holds his sandwich with both hands, one on each side, elbows out wide, sinking his teeth in with large bites. I quickly disgard my fork and knife, sacrificing my table manners in front of Susie, and follow suit. The both of us side by side chomp into our tortilla egg sandwiches like hamburgers, swallowing big mouthfuls without chewing too long, eyes fixated on the TV (which I think was actually a telenovela ☺ ).
Mancho speaks very quickly, and the Nicaraguan accent, not pronouncing the “s” at the end of words, made it sound all the more like one long word jumbled together. After the second day, though, I was impressed at my ability to understand him, not thrusting “Como?” back at him after his every question. I had successfully gotten our handshake down, and we were seated at the dinner table again after he had just gotten back from work and me from school. I asked him what he did for work (I couldn’t understand his answer, but caught that it was close by, in Matagalpa) and how much he worked (6am-7pm) and he asks me about my tattoo. A pause. Suzie and my host sister Raquel leave the table, so it is just us now, one on one. He asks me if I use anything in my hair. I say no, just the rain. He proceeds to show me his large jar of orange “Bronco” gel. We sit there eating. “Do you have a girlfriend?” He asks, nodding and grinning at me. “No,” I say. That is a more simple response. “That girl who was in here earlier is my girlfriend.” “Oh, she is pretty,” I say. “Yeah, it’s hard,” he says. “Yeah,” I say, unsure of what I’m agreeing to. “I’ve had 20 girlfriends in total.” “Oh,” I say, taking a big gulp of the sweet purple drink in front of me, stalling time for a response, “that’s a lot,” I reply, not wanting to reinforce his machismo with an eager affirmation, but also unwilling to give up my boy alliance. I hope that it’s not my turn to calculate and tell how many girlfriends I’ve had. Luckily, Mancho keeps going, “and the one in here today was just one of them.” I am confused if he’s talking about the present or the past but now Suzie comes back into the room, and our secret boy conversation is over and I am relieved not to have to ask Mancho any questions about his girlfriends.