by Mario Machado—
Textbooks have been written on the topic of culture shock, its various manifestations and its particular trajectories. But there is no prescription for how any one person may experience this phenomenon. For me, culture shock has so far existed as a nebulous notion somehow grinding its gears in the recesses of my mind. Perhaps I am being short-sighted and a bit naive, but it seems to me that the trauma of living in a new culture is really just a product of one’s attitude. It’s amazing the things you can acclimate to, given the necessary time and space.
Moving to Paraguay to begin my Peace Corps service was an initial shock that dramatically altered my life in many immediate ways. I began speaking Spanish and Guaraní daily instead of English; I moved in with a Paraguayan host family; I lost most communication with my family and friends; and I was surrounded by things that were new to me. Still, the excitement of being away from my home in the United States—from being pushed out of my comfort zone and into the adventure zone—was thrilling. For about a week, the blog words flowed like water and I could barely contain my thoughts. Each meal was new, carb-rich, fried, and delicious. The language was a challenge that I rose to meet with debatable success. My host family soon became like close friends.
Soon, however, the novelty of it all began to wear off. I became riddled with writers block. I craved veggies and greens as opposed to mandioc and fried dough. I could barely organize thoughts in one language, let alone transition between three on a daily and almost inter-conversational basis. My host family remained warm and wonderful, but as one would expect, had lives to lead and went about doing so.
And yet, while the stresses of acculturation come in waves, the overall trend is toward positive adaptation. Sure, I am living with a family below the poverty line, out of contact with things that are comfortable and familiar. Yes, I am eating foods like mondongo (cow’s stomach), kidney, giant lizard, horse, and incredibly huge amounts of mandioc almost every week. Absolutely, my brain simply shuts off at times, leaving me without any words at all. And certainly, I shower from a bucket and use a hole in the ground as my toilet.
While all of these things are different and strange, taking time to get used to, none of them make life in Paraguay unbearable. In fact, they make life in Paraguay infinitely more real and more colorful. It hasn’t taken long to embrace the crazy foods; I have learned to eat first and ask questions later. The seeming difficulty of cultural differences is overshadowed by the fact that as you live in a place long enough, eventually that place begins to feel like home. I have been here for only a month and a half, and it simultaneously seems like forever and no time at all. Over the next two years, despite the changes and challenges that I will undoubtedly continue to face, Paraguay will only become more and more like my home.
Until next time,
by Mario Machado—
Yesterday I wrote about a fish soup served by my Paraguayan host family, and today I’ll continue on that theme. Disclaimer: This meal is not for the weak of heart. When the meal begins, the situation resembles more or less a familial version of culinary anarchy. Utensils lurch forward, every man for himself, grasping at chunks of fish and mouthfuls of broth. Each bite brings the inevitable crunch of bones, which must then be “fished” out of one’s mouth and tossed to the ground. The family dogs dodge expertly between legs and under the table; for animals that don’t get fed often, fish soup is the best meal of the week.
Inevitably, when the level of broth has dropped disproportionately to the level of piled fillets, family members reach for full sides of the fish and eat them by hand. My host father then does something that will never cease to amaze me. Somewhere in the mix and mash of fish anatomy, he locates the first fish head. Removing it from the bowl with his favorite ladle (which he prefers over a small spoon on fish soup nights), he begins to literally suck the face off of the underlying fish facial bone. Nothing is spared—lips, brains, eyes—everything is sucked dry in less than a minute. When he is finished, a stark white fish skull is left resting in his hand. The dogs never flock to my host father—he doesn’t waste a thing, not a single slice of flesh. He tosses the skull, the ultimate trophy of his fishing and consumptive prowess, and continues the wildness that is fish soup. Viva Paraguay.
I have tried eating a fish face and I must say, it is much more difficult than it looks. One must carefully navigate the small bone structure and strip away small pieces of flesh from around the eyes and mouth. When it comes to internals such as brains, sucking usually works best. As for lips, they are easy to figure out, for one only need give the fish a light kiss and breathe deeply and the entire front of the face slides right off the bone. The eyes, oh the eyes, I have never quite been able to get my head around—it might take a little more time to work up to those. From what I hear, the eyes are quite salty and taste wonderful with a slice of Paraguayan cheese. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.
Fish soup represents the best of Paraguay. Although they live in one of the poorest countries in South America (in front of only Bolivia), Paraguayans have risen to the occasion and created a culture that embraces challenges and remains perpetually tranquilo. The nation itself has gone through drastic changes throughout history—losing 90 percent of its male population in the Triple Alliance war, suffering under 30 years of the Stroessner dictatorship, and, currently, finding its way with a fledgling and often faltering democracy—but this has not dampened the Paraguayan spirit. Despite everything, fish soup brings families together to eat and laugh after long days of work and following brief games of soccer, played in haste before the sun sets over the palm trees. No matter what the future might have in store for this beautiful country, there will always be fish soup and everything else uniquely Paraguayan on which to rely.
Feeling well fed today,
by Mario Machado—
When you don’t have a lot, you eat what you do have and waste nothing; rural Paraguay is no exception to this fundamental rule. In a country dominated by widespread poverty and weak infrastructure, the food culture represents a symptom of—as well as an antidote to—difficult economic conditions. Starches are cheap and abundant, meat is of low quality but high on everyone’s wish list, and vegetables and fruits (while fresh and abundant) are expensive and seasonal. Chicken, low-grade beef, and several types of game (including rabbit and birds) are all consumed often and in variable quantities, with the rare treat of a slaughtered family pig thrown into the mix. Mandioc, a fibrous starchy root plant, is incredibly cheap and immensely resilient as a crop. It therefore finds its way onto every lunch or dinner table; the one thing that there is no shortage of in Paraguay is mandioc.
For my host family, living at or below the poverty line has meant that food must be adaptable, with recipes that can tolerate a number of substitute ingredients and do not rely on too many spices (as many are expensive and difficult to come by). Still, the food is delicious and extremely rich, with plenty of natural flavors and often an excess of salt. We must count ourselves lucky to at least be able to say that we never go hungry and that there is always something on the table; not all in Paraguay or in many places in the world can say as much. My host father, a wise and good-natured farmer, has taken to fishing as both a beloved pastime as well as a great way to supplement protein in the family’s diet. Twice a week, he clambers onto a small-engine motorcycle with his brother and drives several hours along “paved” roads with fishing gear in hand. On these days, he wakes at 3 a.m. in order to catch a few in the Rio Pirana and return home in time for dinner with the family.
This is where it gets interesting. There are several main ways that Paraguayans eat fish: pescado milanese (lightly breaded and fried), pescado frito (pan-fried in oil), and the family favorite, sopa de pescado, or fish soup. Fish soup is less a meal and more an experience. My sisters spend all day slowly cooking a heavy broth with tomatoes and onions. Then the fish is added. The preparation of a fish for this meal involves gutting, scaling, and then cutting the entire carcass into four or five large pieces (head, tail and everything in between) before tossing it into the broth. This stews for around two hours while family members gather.
When the fish soup is ready, a table is brought out in front of the house; no chairs are placed around its perimeter. The entire cauldron of fish soup is then placed in the center of the table while eager family members select and wield their respective spoons. How the soup is consumed is a topic worthy of its own blog post; I’ll get to that tomorrow.
From the land of fish,
by Mario Machado—
The heat has broken, shattered while we slept and in a tremendous fashion by a storm that was as fierce as it was brief. The fields surrounding my new home outside Guarambare bear the scars of heavy clouds passing in the night—and yet, the Paraguayan family I am living with and the rest of our Paraguayan friends remain ever so tranquilo.
I awoke at around one in the morning to the sounds of chaos: animals going off one after the other, people outside scrambling and yelling, and all the while a continuous chorus of wind and water and lightning and thunder. I left my room to find my host family huddled under the small awning in the front of the house as rain came down like a sheet in front of our faces. Already several trees had fallen. The uuvas (a small bush that bears delicious fruit) had been uprooted and strewn in shreds across the yard. The television antenna had also been downed by a wind that seemed quite pointed and strong. My host father mumbled something about his peppers being ruined and retired to the house to wait and hopefully sleep out the storm.
The next morning brought some relief as the violent clouds receded on the horizon, surrendering the sky to a gentle morning sun. But the damage had been done. Twenty rows of peppers had been tossed around in the night, leaving the crop in shambles. The net used shelter and shade the peppers had collapsed. The zapallos, zapallitos, tomatoes, mandioc, pesto, and orange trees seemed to be all right, but it was the peppers that represent the biggest cash crop for my host family. This storm had certainly made a point.
My family is lucky in the sense that my host father is a seasoned farmer and therefore had the foresight to diversify his crops according to price, ease of maintenance, and seasonality. The large-scale loss of the peppers is not crippling to my family, for there are other crops to rely on—however, none of them are currently ready for harvest. The peppers, being the best cash crop but also the crop of highest maintenance needs in the Paraguayan climate, provided a huge source of income for the family at several tens of dollars a week. With that income lost, it’s time to start over and begin replanting. For a poor farmer with limited financial capital, that prospect is daunting but certainly not cause for lengthy deliberation; this afternoon, my host father was already back in the field fixing the netting, salvaging the peppers, and setting the ground for the next round. The realities of farming change drastically when the food you grow represents not only your nourishment but also your livelihood. Live by the sword, die by the sword.
The storm has passed and all will return to normal in due time. The perpetually “tranquilo” Paraguayan outlook will surely iron out any lasting damage as it cradles the simple lifestyles of these beautiful people. One should never idealize the situation of poverty or the challenges it presents to countless real people across the globe, but it does seem—and I have seen this over and over—that the less you have, the happier you are. Peppers or no peppers, we will talk and smile and laugh over dinner tonight. So it goes.
From the other side of the storm,
Today I had the unique privilege of hearing four languages in less than four hours. It was English, then Spanish, then Portuguese, and finally, I heard for the first time a few words of Guaraní, an indigenous language spoken in Paraguay. It was a little much to take in all at once.
We flew north out of Buenos Aires for the short trip to Asunción, the capital of Paraguay. As I got off the plane, the humidity and heat settled calmly over my body. The evening heat was the fading effect of an extremely hot day (the daytime temperature hit 100°F for the first time in a few months—and this is still springtime in Paraguay). The group of Peace Corps volunteers-in-training loaded onto buses to take us across the city to a small conference center to spend the night. The sun was setting and the smog was smoldering over the poorly labeled streets with a combined effect similar to having a foggy lens being pulled over my eyes.
Drivers seemed oblivious to road signs—they drove against the traffic on one-way streets, across medians, and fearlessly into traffic merge points, hoping that the opposing drivers wouldn’t call their bluff. Compact little coupes and rusty old sedans jousted for position with oversized and unbelievably overcrowded Mercedes buses, while motorcyclists and mopeds weaved in and out at will. A policeman was parked on one corner with his lights flashing but made no efforts to intervene; his presence, if actually intended as a deterrent, was in reality little more than a gesture of authority. This was motorized anarchy.
As streetlights cycled through their colorful displays, it soon became obvious that these too were arbitrary in meaning. Not only was I in a country where I did not know the language, I now realized I did not even know how to interpret the road signs. As the bus sat waiting at a green light, several people started to shuffle past the bus: a few in military uniforms, kids trying to throw themselves on windshields and clean them for a few pesos, a few joggers. And then, an old woman walked past. Propped up on her hip and dangling over her shoulder was a small boy. He was emaciated—atrophied legs, swollen joints, a head that lolled aimlessly from side to side in concert with the bump-bump-bump of her hips—resembling someone suffering form some sort of muscular dystrophy. She carried him, seemingly with no particular destination, walking slowly along the median between two maddening sides of opposing traffic. She was unfazed, he was expressionless, and that’s just what it was. The light turned red and we drove on. Both were quickly swallowed by the smog.
We drove through streets of a city unlike any I have seen before. Asunción’s colonial architecture is underscored with an overwhelming feeling of passing time, as if each building is unusually prone to gravity and is slowly being pulled underneath the earth. There is nothing new here. No new cars, no new houses, no new sidewalks. Even the trees seem burdened with time. Shrubs hold precariously to a very dusty, iron-rich and blood-red soil that seems liable to blow away if one but breathes too heavily. Garbage itself constitutes its own unique feature in the cityscape. There are no large buildings, no skyscrapers. The few vestiges of American consumerism remain isolated and contained in small islands, each erupting upward with four or five billboards stacked together like sardines. The soccer fields display their true colors as the grass has been kicked away leaving behind only a large patch of red earth flanked by white-stained-red goal posts.
Asunción is a city with a flavor, and not in the figurative sense (although it does also have plenty of cultural flavor as well), but in a very literal sense. Farmers just outside the city spent the day burning off brush from their fields, presumably to make room for new crops and to recycle nutrients to the soil. The entire city smelled of burnt rubber. The flavor of Asunción today was ash. Tomorrow it may well be flowers and lavender, but today the air tasted like a city of coals.
We arrived in our compound, were warned not to stray outside the gates, and spent the evening eating and relaxing from several days of travel. Showers were a welcomed treat. Tomorrow we move in with host families. Seeing as I might not get a good 8 hours in a while, I shut my eyes and rolled over, sleeping soundly with the knowledge that the guards at the gate, armed with a shotgun apiece, should take care of any troubles we might have.
In way over my head,