Saturday, February 26, 2011

Una Cultura Nueva

As with any new culture, we have had lots to learn upon our immersion into Paraguay. Here are some brief examples:

Food & Drink
The food here reminds Matthew a bit of the Spanish food he had while on his study abroad during college. Lots of meat and processed gluten products. However, Paraguayans seem to have a larger spice rack than the Spanish. We have had oregano, cumin, pepper, and other spices that were non-existent in Southern Spain.

Breakfast consists of a hard roll. That's usually it. With the roll, Tegan usually has cocido, which is a drink made with hot milk and mate. Lots of Paraguayans dip their bread product into the cocido, which softens up the bread considerably. Matthew, having mentioned his general distaste for all things coffee & tea, is treated to a banana milkshake every morning, which consists of bananas, fresh milk, and sugar. (Sidenote: I cannot stress to you enough how delicious this is. Try it sometime.)

Lunch is typically the largest meal of the day. It features some combination of meat and grain, usually beef or chicken and one of the following: noodles, rice, or corn-flour pasta (not unlike gnocci). While we have not seen much of it, apparently many Paraguayan families enjoy parts of the cow/chicken/pig that are generally avoided in the US. This is both a terrific display of not allowing things to go to waste and also gastronomically unpleasant. Mandioc (a largely flavorless tuber) is served at nearly every single meal and in large quantities.

Dinner is generally smaller than lunch, but has many of the same ingredients. Our family goes all out for lunches on Saturday and Sunday and usually eats very little for dinner on those days (they still feed us well). During both Sundays we have been here, we have had ribs for lunch (beef one week, pork the next). This is a good time to discuss the trimming of meat in Paraguay. There is none. This goes along with the whole not-wasting thing, which is great. However, you may not know when you bite into a piece of beef whether or not it will have the texture of meat bubble gum.

Snacking for some trainees involves lots of cheap empty-calorie snacks, but we try and utilize the fruit provided by our host family. Most days are not complete unless we have a banana, orange, and mango (fresh from our family's tree!). Guava trees are abundant here, but we are generally non-plussed by them.

For water, we generally drink directly from the tap. Depending on who you talk within the Peace Corps, this is either A) safe B) a little sketchy C) safer than water in the US or D) a diarrhea guarantee. So far, there have been no problems (knocking on wood).

It continually surprises us just how many people walk around with large thermos' filled with ice water for terere. Terere consists of a cup you fill about half full of yerba mate, and then add in ice water that contains smashed up herbs and plants. Everyone here is a semi-professional herbalist and can pluck some weed out of the sidewalk that will cure what ails you (this is a bit of an exaggeration, but almost every Paraguayan can identify and successfully cultivate plants with healing attributes). The drink is strong, especially at the beginning, but it keeps you awake during excessive PowerPoint presentations and cools you off at the same time. The terere mug and straw are shared between all the people who are partaking.

There are different attitudes toward alcohol even amongst the different host families our group has in the same area. Some folks have families that don't drink at all (uncommon). Some trainees have families that get rip-roaring drunk, but only on Sundays (this is common). Some have families where only the men drink (also common). Our family drinks the occasional bottle of beer, which they share with us (well, Matthew) in the traditional way. Our host dad pours some out into a glass, drinks his share, then passes it to his wife. She drinks her share then passes it to Matthew, who has his share, and the cycle repeats. They seem to drink more on the weekends, but so far, never to excess.

The radio here seems to play the same 5-10 songs all day long. We are beginning to memorize some of the lyrics even though I usually don't know what they mean. The Black Eyed Peas are huge here. Also, so is anything auto-tuned. Our 15 year-old host brother really likes Guns n' Roses, which he plays for us on his cell phone. This is a refreshing change of pace from the pop-centric radio we are usually subjected to. We are planning on expanding his interest in rock music to other bands, which may or may not include more recent musical acts.

Granted, like all the other categories, we have limited knowledge here. Mainly we are going off our exchanges with our host family and stories we here of other trainees' families. Paraguayans tend to be friendly and polite, but a bit introverted. They usually will not greet a gringo on the street, but if you great them first, especially in Guarani, their face will brighten and they respond enthusiastically. They are not afraid of the awkward pause. We are told a great deal of our time in site will be spent inside awkward pauses. While Matthew was walking home on a sweltering hot Thursday, he greeted a collection of old men in Guarani, which led them to invite him over for some terere.

While in Paraguay's capital, Asuncion, we learned some more things about Paraguayans. We had a number of places to visit while there and were mainly left to our own devices to find said places. Because the concept of an address is foreign to Asuncion, this meant a lot of asking around. Paraguayans do not wish to be rude, so when you ask them where something is, they will tell you it is “(some number of) blocks that way.” By my way of thinking, this is not the most polite way to answer the question, because we then have to walk 20 blocks in 100 degree heat in the wrong direction, but it is the custom here. We quickly learned to look for non-verbal signs of recognition in people's faces or other clues that they did actually have the information we needed. Also, it is not at all uncommon to see a ox-drawn cart be passed by a Mercedes Benz in Asuncion.

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