Revisited: Initial thoughts and observations of a strange world not all that unlike my own

Update: I’ve gone back through this post and made a few corrections and improved the flow. The thoughts and observations, however, remain as I wrote them in August 2009.

How does I start a journal (or blog, in this instance) about something as life-molding as the series of events presently unknown that will unfold before my eyes in this foreign place? Where do I begin? This heady experience can obscure the simple fact that although the mind is reeling, the body is still on solid ground, and one should proceed accordingly. So, following my own advice, here goes nothing…

Although it feels like I’ve been here for months, only a week has elapsed since my plane touched down on the dusty tarmac of Silvio Pettirossi International Airport in Asunción, Paraguay.

I arrived on August 7th, 2009 around noon after an exasperating 24 hour journey that took me from Atlanta to Miami, Miami to Buenos Aires, and then finally from Buenos Aires to Asunción. I was met by my employer’s driver at the airport and was told that he would take me over to a hotel to meet with my cousin’s husband who was in the country. Upon entering the driver’s beat up Nissan four-wheeler, tossing my luggage in the back, and getting on the streets, my first thought was of India. (I had briefly toured the Southeast-Asian giant for 12 days. It was my first experience of the third world). I identified the dusty, sun-bleached roads with my first experience riding through Delhi. Men and women of all ages, milling around in the heat, selling this or transporting that. A bustling but not thriving economy supported largely by the domestic sector, seemingly primitive due to the bizarre but ubiquitous copy-cat versions of Western society and mixed with a social exhaustion attributed to one failed government after another.

As I rode in the truck I realized something indelibly linked to this society, something that would would stick with me through both my experiences in Paraguay and Nicaragua: there are very few traffic laws, or really any laws that are followed to the T. And now that I think about, this is a common theme among many developing countries, along with lack of infrastructure, as well as lack of social equality, but that’s another story. As my mind kept making comparisons to India, I realized that Paraguay was much cleaner and much less populated.  But apparitions of the crowded Indian capital followed me all the way to South America.

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As I learned the next morning, people here rise very early and to a comfort-obsessed American like me, there was no respite from this enduring, nagging somnolence. “No more siestas“, as host family would tell me. Apparently the Paraguayans found that they could make more money if they didn’t sleep in the middle of the day. On top of getting up before the rooster crows, Paraguayans seem to eat very little for breakfast, choosing tereré (ice cold version of the Argentine mate) or a light café instead. There is reprieve though. It comes in the form of a big family lunch. Think of our dinner time meal, just at noon. And move that small noon time meal to around 9 pm and you have Paraguayan dinner.

While I’m on the topic of food: Everyone here drinks Coke in polite company or as a means of welcoming a guest. My requests for water were met with confusion. McDonald’s is big here too. We had it for dinner the other night, complete with nice plates and a set table. For McDonald’s. That may seem odd for us Americans, but McDonald’s doesn’t have the same lower class stigma here as it does at home.

Anyways, not all of this strangeness is abrasive or unwieldy. I find the house I’m living in to be quaint and cozy. Its exterior walls look like thick white papier-mâché, and there is a rooftop terrace that I can climb to in order to see the street and houses around me. Doors leading outside are almost always open, as are the windows, even when it is cold. Almost everyone owns a camioneta, or an offroad type vehicle like an SUV or truck with knobby tires and accessory headlamps installed in the grille. There is no central heating, much like how there is no central air conditioning in New England, because the respective temperature extremes (cold and hot) occur only once or twice a year.

The demographics as I’ve seen them so far point towards a persisting European influence. There are a good number of people here that could pass for American. Because of this, everyone talks to me in Spanish since I look like I fit in. I guess this is good and bad. Good because it forces me to use my Spanish, and bad because it forces me to use my Spanish. Go figure.

All of this is mulling around in my head, and I can’t make heads or tails of much of it, but one thing I know for certain is that this experience will stay with me for life.


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