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“AHAs” In Cultural Exchange

“The more things you try, the more likely it is that you will try the one thing that will make all of the difference.” – Brian Tracy

September 1, 2014

I walked into the meeting room laden with my microwave-sized portable oven we’d be using to make passion fruit marmalade. As I stepped across the threshold a mischievous señora and her granddaughter let out a loud “BOO!” from behind the door. I screamed, looked her in the eyes, and kept screaming while I put down the oven until I could start laughing. She was grinning with satisfaction. Payback’s a bitch.

Two weeks earlier I’d spied this same señora walking into my backyard with intentions of coming across the front of my house on her way to our women’s club meeting. I slipped around the corner out of sight and when she stepped up onto my patio I jumped out of my doorway with the same “BOO!”, scaring the bejesus out of her. Once she pulled herself together, she laughed and playfully slapped me on the rear-end then proceeded to retell the story- play by play – to every woman at the meeting.

This meeting in particular was especially sweet for two major reasons: 1) they learned that some of them are now quasi-famous and 2) we had some major “Ahas!” in cultural exchange. Let’s start at the beginning…

I was eager to share a biodigester video produced by fellow volunteer, Lydia Caudill, and featuring four people from my community. Last year, Lydia and two other volunteers visited my site to interview families who use biodigesters as a source of cooking fuel and fertilizer. The result is beautiful. While it is in Guarani with Spanish subtitles, I encourage you to take a look here to see how these biodigesters work, hear the guarani language, and get a glimpse of the proud people of Paraguay. There are some things which have no language barrier. My señoras and my Contact (the man doing much of the talking in the video) were on the edges of their seats (until I pulled out my camera then they all tried to sit back and look ‘chill’!), completely absorbed in the video of themselves and their neighbors (we watched it twice). Their sense of pride filled the room unquestionably, especially when I shared that the hope from the producers and staff is to share the video as an educational tool with Peace Corps posts worldwide! My neighbors loved the idea of being worldly famous. And then they joked about royalties. haha

Later, one señora taught the group to make bread then I taught them to make an almost-sugar-free passion fruit marmalade while the dough was rising (recipe here or click on my In the Kitchen page). With the smell of bread baking in my portable oven, I gave a talk on U.S. culture. The idea was the brainchild of my best friend and fellow volunteer, Tiffany (read her blog here), who’d had much success with this in her own community. I wish I hadn’t waited so long to do this. Despite me offering bits of this talk over the past two years, something about sitting them down and feeding it to them in one gulp broke some barriers and opened some eyes.

My rustic handmade U.S. map offered perspective on the size of the US (we don’t often use the term ‘American’ unless it’s “North American” because Paraguayans consider themselves Americans too….from SOUTH America) compared to Paraguay (which is the size of California) and subsequent population differences. They were shocked to learn that US families have an average of 1-2 children (compared to 6-8/family here!), the wide variety of religions, ethnicities, skin colors, languages and social classes. I gave an example of a ‘typical’ day in the life of a US family. They were horrified to hear that a typical working person gets a half hour for lunch (literally, their jaws dropped open at the thought; who could eat lunch that fast and at the office without your FAMILY???? CRAZY!) And when I talked about our health care system that sometimes leaves people needing to sell their homes when tragedy strikes, they looked at each other and one woman spoke up: “I guess we are pretty rich here after all. We have land, animals, gardens, wells for water, fruit trees, crop fields, close families to help during good times and bad, the ability to stay home with our children.” For a people that consistently reinforce to those with ‘more’ the notion “I am poor. We have no money or things.” this was a huge win – to hear these material-poor people suddenly realize – and claim – how rich they truly are …my heart swelled with joy.

We concluded by sharing our assumptions of each others’ cultures before I came to Paraguay and before we began to know one another. Mine went something like this. “Before coming to Paraguay, I expected:

“everyone to have brown skin, black eyes, black hair and be short.” Reality: PY is a melting pot with influences from Germany, Japan, Russia, Argentina, Spain, and more. You can find brown skin and white. Black hair and blond, sometimes red. Short people and very tall.

“the food to be spicy and based on rice and beans like Central America.” Reality: food here is bland and perhaps why people use so much salt (in addition to the heat and sweating factors). Much of the food is based on mandioca, corn, and white flour (tortillas, milanesa, empanadas, pasta). Most Paraguayans don’t like spicy food, not even your standard ground black pepper. Food is more likely flavored with onions, garlic and oregano.

“a diet rich in vegetables and fruits and little meat.” In the US meat is expensive and I assumed it would be here too but most people in the country raise their own meat and they eat A LOT OF IT. Vegetables are difficult to grow because of the poor soil and intense heat that literally fries plants if not grown in the shade. Fruits are feast or famine. During citrus season, as I’ve mentioned in prior posts here  and here , there is more than can be consumed and citrus is difficult to preserve. Pear, mango and grape seasons tend to come together too but in between, there’s not much. And because the roads are not well maintained transporting fruits and veggies to or from the market can be difficult to impossible.

“everyone to ‘roll’ their ‘r’s.” You’ve probably heard Spanish speakers use that beautiful roll in words. Not here in Paraguay. They laughed and said “No, we’re too lazy to do that!”

“I thought your coconuts would be big.” Paraguayan coconuts are small, the size of golf balls. It’s a lot of work for a small amount of pulp.

When it came time for their turn to voice assumptions, their only concern was “What will she EAT?” and after my arrival they were surprised to learn I could ride a horse.

It was another super fun afternoon with the ladies and a victory in cross-cultural understanding!

Categories: Peace Corps Paraguay | Tags: , , | 3 Comments

A Magical Birthday

“We make plans, and sometimes Life laughs at our plans and blows them apart like leaves. When this happens, if we keep ourselves open to the possibilities that the changes bring instead of being attached to what didn’t happen, we discover that these unexpected Life mishaps can be full of amazing gifts.” – Lloyd Alton Hall

July 30, 2014


I celebrated a birthday over the weekend. I’d had plans for a fellow volunteer to visit my community for the occasion. At the last minute she got food poisoning and we postponed for another time. I decided to use the change in plans to treat myself to a couple days in the capitol. And, for something that started as a spontaneous change of plans, last weekend will go down as one of the best, most memorable birthdays of my life. Kindness, love and spontaneity in abundance.


The birthday greetings began in early morning from my community, family, friends, and volunteers. While enduring the early 6-hour bus ride to the city, all of my favorite señoras called me to wish me a wonderful day. Getting a call says a lot. Calls are expensive for the locals here and reserved for the most important of life’s details or emergencies.


A priority for the weekend was to visit one of my best loves in PY as he prepares to complete his service and return to the US. I was so grateful to hug him one last time and wish him well as he transitions into the next phase of his beautiful life. Peace Corps volunteers are amazing people. Our bond has moved me deeply and I will forever feel a timeless friendship with this extraordinary, talented angel. Paraguay, and the volunteers fortunate enough to know him, are forever richer because of his service and presence here.


Saturday, an ever-thoughtful Paraguayan friend surprised me with tickets to a tango orchestra visiting from Buenos Aires (if you are a new reader, you’ll learn I’m addicted to Argentine tango, one of my utmost burning passions from the U.S., and I was ecstatic to find it in the capitol city recently, offering a little fun while I’m in town on business). I had given up hope of seeing this concert so this was a splendid, spontaneous turn of events! The orchestra was amazing and we got a chance to dance tango to the live music! The orchestra was followed by some fabulous Latin tunes that brought the hundreds of guests to the dance floor. Between Latin and tango, I danced and conversed the night away with many dear Paraguayan friends.



Sunday, I was whisked away to a surprise birthday lunch with 18 immediate members of my host family (from training in 2012) who decorated their home, sang “Happy Birthday” 3 times in 3 languages, and made all my favorite foods and desserts. My host sister is an amazing chef, having several of her recipes published in magazines throughout Paraguay, and she sent me home with two of my favorite recipes (Crema and Vori Vori which you can find on my blog page “In the Kitchen” here along with many other traditional Paraguayan and volunteer-created recipes to try in your own kitchen.) Plus, the internet stars aligned so I could skype with my kids from home! Life was getting more joyful by the hour; I never stopped smiling all weekend.

Upon returning to my community, when I thought the birthday hubbub was done, one of my favorite families invited me to a celebratory birthday lunch. Paraguayans usually reserve pigs for special occasions; I was honored to discover they killed and BBQd a precious pig and made traditional sopa bread for me!! And let me tell you, it was the most delectable pork I’ve ever eaten. After lunch the señora wrote down two of her favorite recipes to send home with me (significant since all of their recipes are in their heads, passed down from mother to daughter by hands-on-learning, not in a cookbook). Click here for the recipe page and look for chipa guazu and sopa!


Sopa Paraguaya

Sopa Paraguaya

Not to leave out my community, I am hosting a birthday fiesta’i (little party) at my house this Sunday for my neighbors to celebrate with me and try a buffet of North American food I am making for them – a great cultural exchange! In PY it is the responsibility of the birthday gal/guy to provide food, serve and clean up; guests just come and enjoy. Señoras offered to loan me larger pans so I can feed EVERYONE (everyone? what? the whole community? the fact that I have one tiny burner and small oven is no deterrent for them; I’ll need to start cooking tomorrow!) They are excited, and a little scared, about the food bit. Paraguayans are not super adventurous in trying new foods but so far the women have loved all the new foods we’ve made in the women’s club so I think I’ve got a little street cred now. And they made me promise to play music and dance all afternoon with them. One of the husbands requested a tango lesson. I told him he needed permission from his wife first. Haha. That should be a crowd pleaser! All around, it should be super fun!


If ever I needed reminders of the beautiful people in my life who are always there for me, here and stateside; the incredible generosity of Paraguayans who went out of their way to show their love and ensure my time in Paraguay is special and unforgettable; gratitude for the bounty of blessings in my life…this weekend was a shining example. I trust Life will blow apart my plans many more times and bring an alternative invitation. It’s my job to stay open to it. I tried it. It worked out beautifully. My heart is full and overflowing.

Categories: Peace Corps Paraguay | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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