Teasing is an important part of Nicaragua humor. Sometimes people say the opposite of what they mean, and if you are lucky they’ll accompany it with a smile or a wink to convey it’s a joke. Usually I get it – it’s fun to joke around with friends this way, and sometimes a creative way complimenting someone. Like most types of humor it generally works best among close friends or coworkers, people who you know well enough to be able to detect the double meaning!
This is a type of humor I have learned well here, and can really enjoy. For example, while I was serving plate after plate of food from a giant pot of carne en baho this weekend, every now and then I would look up from the monotonous task of selecting the right proportion of yucca, plantain, meat and salad to put on a plate and handing it to the next person waiting and see an old wonderful friend who I haven’t seen in a very long time. “Hi!!! Que bueno que veniste, pero que lastimo que ya se acabó la comida y no hay nada para ofrecerte….disculpe…” “Hi!!! So nice of you to come, but such a shame the food just ran out and there is nothing to offer you…” All while standing obviously in front of a giant pot of steaming dinner. And smiling. Of course it’s a joke, and received with a good laugh and a hug.
Sometimes the humor is a bit harder to detect, though. The following day we delivered plates of leftover baho to some of our neighbors, and friends who couldn’t make it to the party. I walked a heaping plate of food down the block to where a family has a small pulpería (corner store) that we always shop at. We don’t know the family very well, but we see them nearly every day (sometimes several times a day if our shopping is disorganized!). There are so many little stores scattered around the town, that almost anything you want is dangerously convenient. It suddenly becomes an incredible nuisance to have to walk the five blocks to the nearest supermarket for something because the pulpería a half block away doesn’t stock it!
The older señora who is super sweet wasn’t attending the store at the moment, so I left the food with her grand daughter and asked her to just hold on to the ceramic plate and we would pick it up later. An hour later I was walking down the street and the older señora waved me over. “Su plato!” she called to me. I went over to get our plate, and she said thank you for the food and asked whose birthday we had been celebrating. Then she said, “Gracias, pero fue muy poquito, fue solo poquito.” “Thanks, but it wasn’t very much. It was just a really little bit.” She said it so seriously, and wrinkled her brow just a bit, and I was totally taken aback. We don’t even really know them, they aren’t really friends, and she was complaining that I didn’t give her more than one plate of bah0! “Well, we just divided up what we had and gave it around to everyone, to all the neighbors, even the drunk who is always on the corner you know….” I was kind of flustered and felt silly making excuses but was also a bit offended. Man, some of the people here sure are hard to please.
Nick laughed when I explained that I was a bit offended by her reaction. Apparently, saying that food is “just a little bit” is a common way of saying it was really delicious and they could have eaten much more of it! Well, come to think of it I guess she was smiling after she said it, and thanked me again, but I was so caught off guard by her words, I didn’t pay much attention to that. Even after several years here, it still pays to talk things over with a person whose been here longer before getting annoyed at someone. Imagine if I hadn’t, and stopped shopping there or chatting with this nice woman because I thought she had been so ungrateful. The layers of culturally specific information cast over a simple phrase can so easily obscure its true meaning!