Stories on Cultural Exchange – We are more alike than we realize

October 6, 2013

“Every time you write, something valuable will occur.” – Sark

It is my hope that today’s writing will inspire you to be curious of other cultures, even beyond Paraguay. (Or even to consider your fellow humans in your own community who happen to be different from you on whatever level.) Hopefully, if you’re reading this blog, you already are. Consider the juiciness of our cultural differences but remember the similarities. Despite our different ways of going about life, recognize that we are all humans, regardless of skin color, languages spoken, foods eaten, emotions felt, living conditions, freedoms, privileges, religion, sexual preference, economic status, education, customs. We all breathe. We all feel. We all struggle. We are all connected.

Paraguayans commonly follow traditional ways and are often hesitant to try new things. Nowhere is this more evident than with food. A perfect example: me trying to spread the word earlier this year that leaves of our sweet potatoes here are edible. I thought I’d struck gold at this revelation and was eagerly telling everyone about it. Who wouldn’t be excited about a free vegetable supply (nutritious leafy greens no less!) that you previously considered a waste product? Despite my enthusiasm and offers for samples and to teach them recipes, whenever they see me returning from the field with a bucket of something they ask if it’s ‘jety’ leaves (‘jety’ is guarani for sweet potato or batata) and laugh at me (“The Norte eats sweet potato LEAVES! Can you believe it? She’s weird! And crazy!”) In fact, today I learned one of the older community members has been telling people my eating those leaves is going to make me fat. If anything is going to make me fat, it’s my first-ever attempt at making orange marmalade this week (and I’ve never liked marmalade). A la pucha! With a touch of cinnamon and ginger, I served it at my workshop with three variations of banana bread along with carrot sticks. Unlike Jety leaves, THAT went over super well, even the carrot sticks, as Paraguayans in my community rarely eat raw veggies except shredded cabbage or tomato on lettuce. As for the leafy greens…that’s like convincing a good, old-fashioned-meat-and-potatoes-loving-Mainer to trade in his favorite meal for a lentil-burger on gluten-free bread. But I’ll win them over before I leave.

Orange marmelade with banana bread - a treat for the hard-working cooks

Orange marmelade with banana bread – a treat for the hard-working cooks

Every community in PY has a Patron Saint and last Friday, October 4, was the birthday of my community’s Patron Saint: Saint Francis. And so it is celebrated with a traditional Fiesta Patronal, a day-long, community-wide party. Our day started at 7am when the señoras began preparations for the traditional lunch of spaghetti with chunks of beef, a side of mandioca, and a large cake (actually the day began at 2:30am when some families first ignited their fireworks and continued hourly until sunrise). Everything was cooked in giant kettles over an open fire on the ground behind the church. The church had been newly painted in honor of the day. Previously a pale pink, a common homestead color here, it was freshly updated with a fiery orangey-red, as close as they could get to Saint Francis’ color brown. At 10am, we gathered inside the well-flowered and candlelit one-room sanctuary for the rezo to celebrate St. Francis as well as witness a marriage and child’s baptism. I didn’t need to be Christian to appreciate their faith, devotion, and tradition of coming together in this way. It was amazing. Spaghetti lunch was served at noon, another rezo at 3pm followed by hot chocolate and cake. Of course, futbol (soccer) was an ongoing event throughout the day by kids and adults alike. I was sugared out but so grateful to be included in their important day.

Church decorated for Fiesta Patronal 2013

Church decorated for Fiesta Patronal 2013

Newly painted one-room church in my community

Newly painted one-room church in my community.

Señoras cooking lunch in large kettles over open fires for Fiesta Patronal

Señoras cooking lunch in large kettles over open fires for Fiesta Patronal. Yes, they are stirring with long sticks.

As part of the Fiesta Patronal ceremony, a statue of Christ is carried around the futbol field followed by a procession of singing worshippers.

As part of the Fiesta Patronal ceremony, a statue of Christ is carried around the futbol field followed by a procession of singing worshippers.

The following day I taught a workshop on how to start a seed bank and gave an introduction to green manures (these are not actually green feces but cover crops that nourish the soil). It was well received and concluded with each attendee receiving some seeds to grow at home and later harvest the new seeds to contribute to the seed bank at the end of the season.

It’s amazing what knowledge and understanding we take for granted in the US. Recently I had a chat with a local señora where she asked if women in the U.S. menstruate. This conversation evolved to include breastfeeding, emotions, and much more. She was shocked to learn that US women’s bodies and emotions work the same as Paraguayan women’s bodies and emotions. We bleed and have cramps, we nurse our babies, we get PMS, we get sick, we love, we mourn, we get frustrated with life and those we love, we celebrate, we worry, we support, we cry, we laugh, we joke, we are strong, we give, we demand, we have needs, we are often taken for granted, we screw up occasionally, we’re brilliant occasionally. We are the glue that holds a family together. Yes, there are differences between us, but at the most basic human level, we are more alike than we realize.

I was visiting with my host mom this afternoon, arriving without an agenda but fully enjoyed the splendor of robust conversation that covered a gamut of topics. During the visit she relived a story from months ago when I was living with them: “Carbon” is PY’s equivalent of charcoal and is great to start the smoker for working with bees. I had been visiting another family together with whom I was about to work their bees. To get my ‘smoker’ fired up I asked if they had any carbon, knowing that most houses have a cooking fire going at any given hour and a chunk of carbon readily available. Instead of ‘carbon’ (pronounced car-BOHN in Spanish), the señora thought I asked for “jabon” (pronounced ha-BOHN) and brought out a bar of soap instead. I held the soap while laughing “mas tarde!” (later!) and “despues kava!” (after we’re done with the bees!) Once she realized the miscommunication the whole family was laughing hysterically. By the time I got home, my host family had already heard about it and were making showering gestures when I walked up to the house. Never a dull moment.

There is a five year old girl who lives next door and attends pre-school in the afternoon. She seems to like me quite well, always saying “Hola Wendia!” One day during her recess I decided to make conversation. It was here I began suspecting that she couldn’t really understand me because she answered every question with “Sí” (which is ‘yes’ in Spanish). So after some small talk that generated additional predictable “Sí” answers, I started asking questions like “Do you like snakes?” and “How many brothers do you have?”  The “Sí”s continued with varying amounts of emphasis for convincability. I realize this is what my community sometimes experiences when they talk with me and I pretend to understand: How many brothers do you have, Wendy? Sí! How big is your garden, Wendy? Sí! Sí! What time is your workshop next Thursday, Wendy? Sí! Sí! Sí! Hahaha.

Another Latin American tradition that is certainly no stranger to PY is the despensa, or PY version of a convenience store, as frequently there is not a major food store for miles (my nearest supermarket is 1.3 hours by bus). Despensas are often simply a front room in people’s homes. The larger ones are sometimes stand-alone though it is very common for people to live where they work. Despensas rarely have regular hours and are open when the señora is available (if she sleeps in, takes a siesta or goes to town, the despensa is closed and you come back later). She might be the only show in town but more likely there are several others nearby. Many of them carry similar items with little individuality within a community. Imagine if we tried to run a business like that in the US? But here it works.

In PY, it is customary to ask for what you want or simply take what you want, even if it’s not yours. For example, last week a local señora came to visit and asked if I would give her some saldo (like minutes for her phone, shared by texting it to her) and if she could borrow bus fare until Monday. This is asked with no sense of hesitation or embarrassment. It’s simply the culture. Also, if people see materials lying around in a field they are considered free for the taking even if on someone else’s property. In the US it would be considered stealing. Here, it’s fair game. If you don’t want it “shared”, lock it down.

Did you know?

*People often scavenge containers to store seed, food or miscellaneous things, start seedlings plants, etc. It definitely helps with the ‘reuse’ part of trash management.

*Sunflower oil is most popular cooking oil here. Soy oil is also popular. Cottonseed is readily available but more expensive and olive oil is out of the question for most families in the campo due to its high cost in comparison: 1 liter of sunflower oil is about $2.50; 1 liter of olive oil is $16.

*I have never seen infant formula for sale in my area. I’m sure it’s available somewhere but breastfeeding is widely used to feed babies until they are ready for prepared food.

*If a merchant does not have exact change they will give you candy or a box of matches instead of money

*There are three main drinks made from cane sugar here: mosto, jugo de miel, and caña. “Mosto” is the raw form, where the sugar cane stalk is cranked through a press, and the liquid that comes out is mixed with water and consumed. “Jugo de miel,” or “honey juice” is that same liquid, cooked down to a syrup, then added to water. The third, caña, is a rum-like alcoholic beverage that costs about fifty cents per little bottle. Most people mix caña with soda; (Date courtesy mi amiga LauraLee Lightwood-Mater)

*We have these plants in my community and they are fun to play with! Plus the baby goats love to eat them: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=723488321010902

Enjoy the culture all around you.

Until next time,

Jaotopata

Categories: Peace Corps Paraguay | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Stories on Cultural Exchange – We are more alike than we realize

  1. I like the community feel of all the events, the stores that are open if the owners are not sleeping, borrowing tools or anything from a yard, and the celebrations- Its almost as if the separation from one another is only temporary when in your home but the doors are always open, and when you’re out and about, all our one really- it’s different in the states.. We sometimes try be separate- Culturally in PY, it seems that it’s expected all are together- like family.

    Would be nice to see that everywhere in the world..

    Nice post Wendia-

    🙂

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