Dressing Up for the Soccer Game

In Paraguay you dress up to go to the community soccer game. It doesn’t matter that it’s hot, that there may or may not be shade, and that the players themselves will be covered in dirt and dripping with sweat.

You dress up because everyone is going to be there. Because, there will be people you want to impress—whether that means you’re looking for a significant other or know you’re going to run into a community leader.

Young women and young men gather in gendered groups and strut around.

You will see a lot of pink, on men and women, and other saturated tropical colors. You will see girls with bright pink and blue eye shadow, dark eyeliner, and lashes heavy with mascara. You’ll see rhinestone-encrusted hairpieces, scrubbed-clean-like-new sneakers, and lacy shirts. Everyone wears his or her best pair of jeans. Men wear crisply ironed t-shirts and polos. Women wear cleanly pressed tank tops. Everyone has Jesus, angel, or virgin necklaces. Even little girls break out their rings.

Just because it’s a social scene doesn’t mean soccer is secondary. The parading happens before and after the game and during halftime. When the players are playing all eyes are on the field. People scream, swear, squeal, sing, pound drums, set off fireworks, and jump to express their opinion of the game’s progress.

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Cats and Dogs in Paraguay

JasyDogs and cats in Paraguay are usually approached in the same way that farm animals are—they serve a purpose and people are not emotionally attached to them. One common exception is puppies, which children tend to play with and adults tend to pet.

Dogs guard houses. They aren’t trained, spayed, or neutered. Sometimes female dogs are given a birth control shot, but several Paraguayans have told me that if you spay a dog before she has at least one litter she will die early. Dogs tend to have fleas and are dirty. They generally don’t come in the house and are often fed leftovers instead of special dog food.

There are dogs everywhere and you have to be aware when walking around at dawn, dust, and dark because dogs won’t hesitate to attack you. Luckily, however, a stick or pretending to pick up a rock will scare them away.

Cats are for killing rats and mice. They tend not to be welcome in the house and aren’t fed. Most cats I’ve met don’t really have owners and don’t really have names. Paraguayans call all cats “Michî,” which means “little” in Guaraní.

Sharing Is Just Part of Life

Clouds and palmsOne thing I’ve noticed while living with Paraguayan families is that they have few things. That’s not to say they don’t have anything—the families I’ve lived with have TVs (yes, plural), stereos, toys, and fashion items like purses and watches. But, they don’t have things in excess. Paraguayans use the things they have until they are completely worn out, and then they use them for something else.

Despite having little, Paraguayans share almost everything and aren’t afraid to use things just because they might get dirty or break. For example, one of my host brothers has a bike. It’s a bike that’s too big for him and has parts from different bikes, but it runs just fine. He rides that bike whenever he can. And his sister rides it, and two of his neighboring cousins ride it because they don’t have a bike, and his other siblings and cousins ride it sometimes. They all zoom around, up and down, the little dirt paths that connect our houses. Sometimes the seat has to be raised, but most of the time it is pushed down as far as it can go. No one worries that the bike is going to break—they just enjoy what they are getting out of it now.

The same goes for food. When a little kid, or adult, or anyone really, has something yummy they almost always share it if they are eating it in front of other people. I’ve passed candy bars and cookies back and forth with my eight-year-old sister.  If you don’t want to share, you don’t eat around other people.

Everything here seems to be shared. Siblings share beds, cousins share party shoes, and neighbors share garden tools. Why does everyone family need their own ladder when someone in the vicinity already has one?

When someone in the family gets something new they pass it around so everyone can look at it. Things that individuals get still add, somehow, to the enjoyment of the whole family or group.

Having only what you need and sharing everything is very different than my experience in the US. In the US we focus on being independent and being individuals, so the idea of sharing is second thought. It may not seem like a big difference, but it is.

Paraguay’s Commuter Buses

RoadThe bus groans, heaving up the hill. The driver slams the bus into another gear. Someone pulls the cord, there’s a buzz, and then the bus lurches to a stop. Everyone is thrown back—even the people sitting hold on tight. In Paraguay, you can catch the bus anywhere along its route and get off anywhere along the way. You just buzz to stop and put out your hand (like you would hail a taxi) to get the bus to stop.

The bus starts again and the person who got on pushes through the metal turnstiles at the front of the bus and takes a seat. At the back of the bus are maybe five plastic burlap bags with produce. If you can lift it onto the bus you can take it on. The wind whips through the open windows; a welcome coolness to offset the penetrating sun. I should have sat on the shady side.

We jolt to another stop. Some school children get on. They duck under the turnstile because they didn’t pay. A woman next to the seat where I’m sitting presses against my shoulder and the bus roars up the road again. The bus swerves back onto the street from the curve where it had been driving for the past kilometer. The bus puffs black smoke as we pass someone on a dirt bike.

We stop and someone selling apples and someone selling donuts gets on. They make their rounds and get off at the next stop. They carry their goods in baskets and plastic bags.

I wonder how many people on the bus are going to my community. I watch the palm trees wiz by, surrounded by tall grass. There are cows tied up along the edges of the road. The bus driver drinks terere. His windshield is decorated with stickers of Jesus’ face and fringe. When the bus isn’t full, I love the ride.

What’s the Real Message Here?

Not so long ago, I sat in on a twelfth grade psychology class. The topic was security and how everyone has to do their part to maintain security. After a brief lecture, the class split into groups. Each group developed and preformed a skit about one of the following topics: security in the home, security in the plaza, security in the community, security in the bus, and security in the school.

The skits were funny and covered a range of themes from helping old people on the bus (this skit poked fun at the Paraguayan buses…more on that later) to picking up trash in the town plaza.

One skit struck me more than the others, but not because of its security message. The plot: The stay at home mom had a lot to do around the house, and so she was unable to have lunch (the biggest meal in Paraguay) ready for the hour her husband came home. She had three daughters who at the beginning didn’t help her with the house chores—one was texting, one was watching TV, and one was painting her nails. One day the father came home and lunch wasn’t ready. He got angry and told the daughters they had to help their mother because he wants lunch ready when he gets home because he is hungry. After that, the daughters helped their mother and lunch was ready for the father when he got home.

I understand that the intended message of this skit was that everyone should contribute in the house. But, for me, the skit did a better job of illustrating power relationships and gender expectations.

I found it interesting that the reason the daughters had to help was because their father wanted his lunch at a specific hour. From what I’ve seen in Paraguay so far, most women’s prescribed role is taking care of their men. Women aren’t powerless here, but the last word is usually the man’s, especially when he’s the main breadwinner. I also noted that it was three daughters—this was mostly due to who was in the group developing the skit—but I think expectations for sons are different. The sons I’ve seen do help out, but few do many house chores.

For me, this little skit was a great example of how gender norms and expectations permeate through how we see everything in society. It made me wonder how a group of high school students would portray the same topic, security in the home, in the US.

Pondering Over Coffee

FieldIt’s chilly, as in I’m not comfortable outside in my shorts. It’s before 7 am and I’m sitting in the dim kitchen drinking my daily morning coffee and eating my daily morning bread. It’s Saturday. My family started playing the polka at 6 am. Being a light sleeper, I gave up trying to snooze and brushed my teeth at 6:20 am.

The chicken that I thought was one of my best friends tries to steal my bread. The kitchen has a window without glass or a shutter and a door that stays open to the outside during the day. The cold air wafts toward me. I set my mug on my leg to warm up.

This morning, the coffee is already sweetened. That’s not always the case, but today it is. The coffee is syrupy, painfully sweet. It’s like liquid coffee-flavored hard candies.

A Paraguayan coffee recipe:

  • 2/3 – Hot water
  • Just enough to thoroughly color the water – Instant coffee or finely ground coffee
  • 1/3 – Milk
  • Many, many spoons – Sugar

Mix coffee and water. Add milk at the end of the cooking process. Add sugar before drinking.

Soaking my white bread in the coffee-flavored-sugar, milk-flavored-water I wonder why my family makes their coffee this way. In my past life, I didn’t drink coffee, but this is Paraguay.

In the shadows, I consume my coffee—reminding myself not to gulp it every time I lift my mug.  The new sun makes the trees outside shiny green.

“Oh, I get it,” I think. “I know why they use so much sugar in their coffee…it must be the cheapest ingredient, apart form water, in the mix. That’s it, they add sugar to make it taste like something.”

Somehow that realization is settling. I sip my coffee and dunk the last of my bread. I too would rather have sugar-flavored-coffee than coffee-flavored-water everyday.

2 More Myths About the US: City and Disposable Clothes

ClothesWhen I was in college we talked a lot about globalization and how US culture is everywhere. I won’t argue that point, but I’ve come to understand that being everywhere and being understood everywhere are different things.

Myth 1: The US is only city.

The thought that the US is only city has a lot to do with movies. Most of the movies that make it to Paraguay about the US are set in a city. Actually, most of the movies I watched in the US are set in the city. I guess the city is more exciting. Being from the rural US myself, this myth was fun to dispel.

Myth 2: People in the US wear their clothes once and then throw them out.

The person who asked me about this heard it from someone who visited the US. I think the root of the confusion might have been that it seemed like people wore their clothes only once because people in the US tend to have more clothes than Paraguayans. In Paraguay most people I’ve known have a handful (more or less) of each clothing item. It’s common and fine to wear the same shirt (or outfit) multiple times a week as long as it’s clean. To ensure they always have clean clothes, many Paraguayans do laundry several times a week.

Meat

CowI cannot describe the Paraguayan love for meat

So strong and not selective

 

It’s not romantic, but matter-of-fact

Nawing, slurping, cutting, chopping, slicing, pounding, breading, frying, grinding

It is not the cut that matters

 

Cow for the weekdays and pig for the weekends

Pork fatty bits seasoned and laced with cornmeal

Blood sausage or breaded and fried stomach slices

 

Bones with fat in a runny broth

Little bits in cheesy rice

Slices that are somewhat nice

 

Meat, carne, so’o, pork, chancho

Meat is king in Paraguay

(Chicken does not count as meat)

 

Slaughtering is a group affair

Kids know how to remove pig hair

The men slice and the women cook

 

It’s not exciting and it’s not passionate

The source of our food is very clear

This here pork came from over there

 

Paraguayans love their meat

It’s not secret but loudly announced

Meat desire.

 

A Day in the Life

Serving in the PC is an emotion roller-coaster. Here is an example of my feelings and thoughts during a typical weekday. Palm trees

5:30 am – Tired: I wish my family wasn’t so loud getting ready for work and school.

6:00 am – Screw it: I’m not that tired, so I might as well get up. I have to pee anyway.

6:15 am – Yay: The morning is cool and the sky is gorgeous.

6:16 am – Pumped: I’m so productive when I start the day this early.

7:00 am – Reflective: Well, this coffee with bread is actually pretty good considering I didn’t like either before coming to Paraguay.

7:15 am – Relieved: Writing it all down in a journal makes it easier. I don’t know when I’ll be able to talk to someone about it anyway.

7:30 am – Excited: I’ll get to work early today. It’s going to be a good day.

8:00 am – Cared for: The people at the health post are awesome.

12:00 pm – Starving: I’m starving and really need to pee. How do Paraguayans drink so much terere and never need to use the bathroom?

12:30 pm – Reluctant: Just eat it. I should be thankful someone made me lunch…

1:00 pm – This sucks: It’s sort of hot and now I don’t know what I want to do or what I should do.

1:30 pm – Bored: Fine, fine, I’ll study Guarani…maybe I’ll read instead.

3:00 pm – Escape: I got to get out of here. It’s clearly time for a walk, run, or trip to the grocery store.

4:00 pm – Missing people: Is anyone in the states online? What are my g-mates doing?

4:15 pm – Grr: Of course no one is online; it’s still during the work hours.

5:00 pm – Satisfied: Most of my Paraguayan family is home. We are drinking terere, and I actually know what they are talking about (mostly)!

5:45 pm – Frustrated: I’m never going to learn Guarani. Why did my host brother have to ask me a question in Guarani so fast?

6:00 pm – Hungry but it’s okay: I don’t think we are having dinner for a while still. But, I feel so integrated and connected sitting here drinking terere.

7:00 pm – Greasy: Tortillas, so good at first, so bad later.

7:30 pm – Indecisive: Do I want to watch TV with my family, work on my novel, study, read, or plan charlas? …Is there another option?

8:00 pm – Calm: Watching this soccer game is engaging enough, and they are calling the game in just Spanish so that’s nice.

8:30 pm – Awkward: Everyone in my Paraguayan family is falling asleep and the TV is in their room. Looks like I should go to my room.

8:45 pm – Not tired: Now what?

9:30 pm – Doubtful: I think I’ve been productive today. I feel like I’m not doing enough.

10:00 pm – Defensive: Stop putting yourself down, you’re doing just what you should be doing.

10:01 pm – Sleepy: On that note, let’s go to bed shall we?

10:30 pm – Awake: Why am I still awake?

Bad Habits

Paraguayan skyWhy is the knowledge that something is bad for you not enough to make you stop doing it?

I’ve been thinking about this question a lot recently. When I tell Paraguayans that I’m in Paraguay to teach about health they jump right in and tell me how bad the Paraguayan diet is. Paraguayans tell me their food “has a lot of fat” or that the food “is heavy.” They tell me that there are a lot of people who are overweight, have diabetes, or have high blood pressure.

Next, Paraguayans ask if I like their traditional foods like sopa paraguaya, tortillas, and mandioca. They tell me they want to lose weight, but then put three tablespoons of sugar in the milk they are going to drink with bread. They ask, already knowing the answer, if they should eat fewer carbohydrates if they want to lose weight. They explain how they don’t exercise or eat vegetables.

I don’t know if the people I talk to know that different foods have different nutrients or that balancing calorie intake and calorie burn is the center to weight control, but it’s clear they know what they are consuming isn’t the healthiest option.

If they know it’s bad for them, why aren’t they trying to change it?

  • Is it habit?
  • Is it that they don’t know how to cook different foods?
  • Is it taste preference?
  • Is it cost?
  • Is it cultural heritage?
  • Is it a lack of information or understanding about what makes food healthy or unhealthy?
  • Is it something I’m not seeing?

In the past, I wrote about developing public health programs that encourage change by focusing on the out-of-box-experience. But, as I work in Paraguay, it’s daunting. Clearly, a lack of knowledge isn’t the only thing at work here. But what can I do other than provide information?