Posts Tagged With: tradition

A New Perspective

“Acknowledge someone’s gifts as if that person were your brother or sister, have compassion for their struggles, see them as connected to the same fabric as you instead of a separate entity that is somehow a threat.” – Padhia Avocado

June 28, 2014

I got the idea for this blog after reading an online story by Chelsea Fagan called “American habits that seem insane after you’ve lived abroad”:

After living in PY for nearly two years, I can relate to these sentiments and wanted to add a few of my own. For you North Americans who have never lived anywhere but the USA, consider that we have some opportunities here for personal growth. Of course I’m generalizing for both cultures and I realize not all of these are easy to cut and paste from one culture to another on their own but it’s worth giving them consideration and perhaps a try…

1. Acknowledging people when you walk by them.
It’s an instant feel-good. In PY, it is rare to walk past someone, whether a neighbor or complete stranger, and not have them greet you in some manner. As a reserved Maine Yankee, this took some getting used to but now I really love it. Paraguayans are often stone-faced when not engaged in conversation but the moment you smile at them or offer a greeting their faces light up. I made their day. They made mine. We’re good. It’s magical and gives you energy to throw into the rest of the day. Smiles are contagious no matter what language you speak.


2. Neighbors
How many of us really know our neighbors? Care about them? Or even speak to them? Of course in the US we proudly live very different, independent lives, ones where we do not necessarily NEED our neighbors to survive (except perhaps in the case of the Ice Storm of ’98 but that’s another story) but in this lack of needing and knowing we create isolation and often a sense of apathy to those around us. We’re so busy with our own important lives that we have no time to care for or share the successes and struggles of our fellow human beings. Can we do more to bring our community together, to celebrate our collective humanness, to start knowing each other?


3. Living life in balance.
Work, children, entertainment, volunteering, exercise, friends, extended family. We have this idea that the more we work, the busier our schedules, the ‘cooler’ we are. We call it ‘driven’ or ‘motivated’ or ‘achievement’. Other cultures just think we’re crazy because we’re too busy to actually enjoy our success and have no time for…family. Because here in PY, family is EVERYTHING. On Sundays, life of the workweek stops, the extended family congregates and spends the whole day together, simply enjoying each others’ company, sharing meals and their preparation, talking about the prior week’s tales, sharing plans for the upcoming week, celebrating successes, sharing the burdens, recalling stories from childhood or silly things that the Norte said.. And Paraguayans know the importance of resting and relaxing even on a work day. They start the day with a relaxing hot maté and the rest of the day is interspersed with regular occurrences of their famous terere (yerba mate) breaks, where sitting, sharing and talking in a circle of friends, family or co-workers are part of the tradition. They are not afraid to ask for help for the smallest to the biggest projects or tasks and easily accept it. We could give ourselves a break by doing a better job of this in the US, eh? Put your stubborn pride aside and let someone give you the gift of assistance. It makes the giver feel good and the receiver gets a hand. Win-win.


4. It is good to work for your food.
Meal prep is an important, and often time-consuming, part of each day. “Fast food” is an empanada. Otherwise, a senora will spend hours preparing lunch which will be savored at the table together with the family. Preparing a single meal usually means building a fire on the ground from scratch using firewood gathered days prior, plucking corn kernels from the cobs by hand, grinding kernels into corn meal with a hand-cranked grinder (this alone is a workout!), making cornmeal into corn bread in a cave-like oven- also fired by wood-  plus preparing a soup with vegetables and meat bones or a chicken which would have also been killed and dressed that morning in her spare time. The family would have worked months in the field to grow the corn and mandioca for the meal, sugar cane and different varieties of corn for the horse who pulls the wagon full of the harvested cane and brought home… and a flock of chickens and the cows which are milked by hand every morning. Thus, meal times are to be savored for each one is the fruit of months of labor.


5. Forgive and Forget
In my community, people quickly forgive and forget the transgressions of others, especially neighbors. In a community as small as this (35 families), they need each other for survival. Fighting and holding grudges would put them all at risk. You need my well when yours goes dry every summer, I need your help killing a cow to feed my family. So they’ve learned to pretend it never happened and I’ve done the same when offended by someone as well. It’s beautiful. We can all just relax and move forward and life is so much better. I’ve discovered tremendous beauty in this. Being on the receiving end of forgiveness is such a gift. Whether unknowingly displaying a cultural faux paz or use of an inappropriate word that I thought had a different meaning and then being filled with fear or guilt of offending my neighbors, I am greeted with a “Tranquiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiilo, Wendia!” that puts me at ease. They have no use for holding grudges, shaming or embarrassing the other party (making them “pay” so to speak), or making me feel awkward for my slip-ups (except that they LOVE to talk about them with each other in a lovingly joking way). The fact that they look past my mis-steps and shortcomings by lovingly poking fun at me makes me feel all the more supported and loved. And not just with me but with each other. They fight one afternoon and they’re laughing with each other a few days later. I’ve learned that this is something I want to bring home with me and make a regular practice in my life in the US; I’d love to see more of it and less of “it’ll teach her a lesson”. Can we do this together, please?


6. Taking care of family
I’m talking extended family. Chelsea points out in her article how North Americans are so eager to get away from family. In Latin America, extended families live together gladly, comfortably sharing small spaces and resources, a family of eight sipping from the same glass of water or sharing beds: from newborns to great grandparents they all care for each other without a complaint, passing on traditions and wisdom learned over the years. And when all the kids are grown, at least one family member stays at home to care for aging parents or a widowed mother, usually a younger son or married daughter. Unlike the US where there’s a stigma for young adults living at home, here it’s an honor to care for one’s elders. No woman, especially an older woman, would be left to live alone in PY’s campo.  This includes extended family too. Here in my community I have several examples: a younger male cousin caring for older female cousin, a 50-something nephew caring for an 83 year old aunt and her ‘adopted’ son of 33 years, two single men – one 26, the other 48 –  caring for their mothers and one single woman of 50 who lives alone but between two sisters with large families who act as her own children, growing food and helping her with chores.


7. The need for speed
North Americans are addicted to a fast-paced life. Some would argue there’s no alternative in this age of full family schedules, work demands, and a spectrum of irresistible recreational activities at one’s disposal. When you bring that hectic energy to a culture like Latin America it stresses out the locals! They don’t understand what the rush and urgency is. If I need to go to the despensa for eggs but the senora is eating lunch, it might take 30 minutes to be waited on while she finishes but she also is likely to offer me a plate of my own while I’m there. Or someone says they’ll be over “en seguida” which might be a couple of minutes, 4 hours, tomorrow or never. Tranquilo. Or your 10am bus doesn’t arrive for 45 minutes or 2 hours or at all– that’s normal so don’t get your knickers in a bunch (ok, perhaps there’s room for a middle-ground here). Or you go for a ‘quick visit’ to see a family until you realize…there is no such thing as a quick visit. Relationships are important. ENJOY the connection whilst there. If you have a specific mission in mind you must first socialize and only then get down to business. Anything less is rude. I think we would prosper a lot from practicing a little patience and building more breathing room into our lives.


8. Less is more
Paraguayans are among the poorest of the world, yet consistently rank among the happiest people in the world (see my News and History page for examples). They work hard, rest hard, love fiercely. They don’t stress over things out of their control and laugh about everything.

We can learn a lot from Paraguayans.


More ‘stuff’ does not produce happiness. Quite the opposite, I would argue. Can we do better with what we already have (reuse/recycle?) Can we just stop with the excess? Can we stop robbing the world – and taking more than our share- of its resources for our frivolous and soon forgotten pleasures (and subsequent garbage heaps)? Can we stop raping the environment today to preserve it for a better tomorrow (do you really want to live and breathe in an environment the equivalent of a toilet in 40 years? Do you want that for your kids and grandkids?) Spend one week considering every purchase you make: Is it necessary for your happiness? Is there a better alternative? Could you live without it? Have you ever asked yourself what REALLY makes you happy over the long term? Is your ‘stuff’ a mask to cover a lack of fulfillment? Does that really work for you? Would foregoing a purchase and trying on forgiveness work just as well?

What if we took better care of ourselves, each other, and the environment we live in? What if we got back to knowing our neighbors, dropping in on friends, lingering regularly over meals like our lives depended on it (um, yeah, cuz they do), laughing regularly, sharing hugs and I Love Yous freely, forgiving instead of begrudging (including ourselves!), offering love instead of envy, lifting others up instead of tromping them down. Wow. What a world that would be.

Stepping off my soapbox now. Let’s hear your thoughts.


Categories: Peace Corps Paraguay | Tags: , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

El Dia de Los Muertos

In Paraguay, November 2 was El Dia de Los Muertos or “Day of the Dead”, a day where families remember their deceased. Despite it’s name, it focuses on celebrating rather than mourning the lives of one’s ancestors and can be a bit of a party in some communities. Families hang out at the cemetery for hours or all day, handing out candy, lighting candles, saying prayers, laying fresh scarfs over the crosses at the headstone, telling jokes, laughing. In the days leading up to the event, grave sites were cleaned of trash and weeds, several tombs were freshened up with a new coat of paint. Even the outhouse looked spiffy (outhouse in a graveyard? yup- people spend a lot of time here). In my community, families visit their ancestors every Monday morning. Family is everything.

Size and location of a grave is an indicator of wealth. The wealthiest have large tombs above ground, often accommodating many bodies or entire families, while the poorest bury their dead in the earth with just a simple headstone to mark the grave.

While talking to families at the cemetery this day, I asked many questions about the tradition and also explained that there is no equivalent in the U.S.  Sure, we have Memorial Day for veterans but there is no day formally set aside to remember and pay tribute to our ancestors (one of the teenagers asked me if Halloween counted; um, no.) This has prompted me to consider adopting a new tradition for myself when I get back to the States to remember and honor my own ancestors regularly, whether through a visit to their graves or a ritual of some kind. Afterall, they have all contributed in myriad ways to this life I am currently living. The idea seems fitting and right, especially as this year’s Day of the Dead celebration fell on the one year anniversary of my grandmother’s passing, the last of my grandparents to leave this world.

Local cemetery during Dia de Lost Muertos (Day of the Dead) where families honor and celebrate their deceased.

Local cemetery during Dia de Lost Muertos (Day of the Dead) where families honor and celebrate their deceased.

Symbolism of remembering their dead, examples found in a tomb during Dia de Lost Muertos (Day of the Dead)

Symbolism of remembering their dead, examples found in a tomb during Dia de Lost Muertos (Day of the Dead)

Paraguayan cemetery. Here you can see the full range of graves, from the basic simple cross headstone marking the body in the ground, to the more extravagant tombs built to hold entire families.

Paraguayan cemetery. Here you can see the full range of graves, from the basic simple cross headstone marking the body in the ground (top right), to the more extravagant tombs built to hold partial or entire families (orange  and green building). Note the outhouse stage left.

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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:

Enjoy the culture all around you.

Until next time,


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

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