When I was hired by an organization to work overseas in Paraguay, I thought I would immediately be immersed in a foreign culture, meet many Paraguayans who would become my friends, and be forced to learn the language quickly. What I was greeted with surprised me.
The organization sent someone to pick me up from the airport, take me to a pharmacy to buy necessities, and settle me into my freshly stocked apartment (including teaching me to light the stove correctly!). They brought me anything else I needed the next day. The apartment was on the campus of my workplace and everyone living in the apartments spoke English. In fact, we were expected to speak only English in our workplace, and since everyone else avoided speaking Spanish, it was very difficult to practice our Spanish. Everyone living in the apartments were American except for me. Besides the difference between Fahrenheit and Celsius and some vocabulary misunderstandings, I found no problem adjusting to my apartment and workplace. Even though it was in the middle of South America, it was just not very different from what I was used to. Although my work was stressful and time consuming, I had readymade friends who spoke English and so had little reason to leave my workplace, explore, or learn Spanish. Fortunately, I put in an effort to break free of the bubble I was living in by learning some Spanish, forming some friendships, and volunteering.
Two years later I found myself moving along in my life, and I decided to leave my job in order to work independently. I was leaving the bubble! This meant becoming more fluent in Spanish, renting an apartment, buying appliances, and learning what buses to take in unfamiliar parts of Asunción.
The first thing I tackled was my living situation. I had a friend call apartments for me. The first time we visited an apartment, the man told us we could rent it, but when we called later he said it had been rented to someone else even before he had spoken to us. The second apartment we found exceeded our expectations. It turned out to be in a completely different part of the city, but in a great neighbourhood. In Paraguay, the landlords usually do not supply electrical appliances, so we had to buy those ourselves. Buying them was simple. However, the garrafa (gas tank) was excruciatingly difficult to find. The delivery people said we could buy one at the gas station. Nope. Not for sale. We went to a pawn shop. None. I went to our former workplace to ask for help. They called someone who said new tanks were only sold at a gas station, but the price was very high and they did not have any in stock. I asked someone to ask someone who asked someone else if they had a gas tank for sale, and we had one the next day. That’s how Paraguay is. Word of mouth is a powerful thing.
Living outside a sheltered workplace was an entirely different experience. I found myself in a steep learning curve as I learned more about the real Paraguay, which is definitely not an American bubble. My neighbourhood has cobblestone streets, trash burning frequently on the side of the road, a pack of stray dogs, and people ringing our bell or just clapping loudly outside our house almost every day to beg, or to sell strawberries, brooms, dusters, raffle tickets, or other things. It has an excellent empanada shop that we visit frequently, a second hand furniture shop where the owner knows us and introduces us as his “amigos extranjeros,” even though we have only been to the shop twice, a school with a marching band that marches around the block beating their drums to practice, and several groups of Paraguayans who are always out drinking tereré (cold tea) in the evenings. Horses trot down the street pulling cartloads of tree branches or other materials. The local chipa truck drives down our street regularly blaring its message of “chipa rodero.” A dog sleeps on the grass in front of our house. Instead of a hectic American style work schedule, I drink tereré in the evening. I enjoy visiting with my Paraguayan friends, who teach me more about the country and make sure I learn some Guarani, too. And the best thing of all is that I don’t live in a bubble now. I live in Paraguay.