It was as I was walking out of the airport, being hit in the face by the dry heat and bright sun, surrounded by dark-skinned natives wearing sandals and drinking terrere. Or perhaps it was as I sat in the taxi, sans air-conditioner, riding along the city’s highway measuring at 3 metres wide, whilst peering out the window at two young boys casually riding on a horse alongside my vehicle. It was sometime then, during my first few hours in Paraguay, when I realized that visiting this country wasn’t just going to let me cross off another country on my ‘travel-around-the-world’ list, but rather that this country, with its different temperatures and smells, would provide some personal, meaningful experiences that would stay with me for a long time.
I was not mistaken.
The 8:00am taxi ride on Tuesday to ‘Mariscal Lopez’ where the weekly farmers market was held in the car-park below the mall, was unlike the markets I had previously been to. There were many varieties of vegetables and fruits, honeys and cheeses, all set up nicely by these dedicated, hardworking farmers trying to earn some dollars with which to feed their families.
But it wasn’t just that. The Paraguayan twist, as I like to call it, appears.
There were young boys, unable to attend school as they had to help their families earn money, holding big wooden-woven baskets, offering shoppers to carry their purchases as they made their rounds between the farmers, in exchange for a few Guaranis (Paraguayan currency).
Another day whilst shopping at the mall, I noticed something else, another Paraguayan twist. The items in the stores were so expensive, more than I, an average-earning young adult from England, was accustomed to. Then I realized, in Paraguay, there is no middle class; there is high class and low class, rich and poor. The stores are for the rich, so it is expensive. The marketplaces, where they sold second-hand clothes, shoes and watches, held every morning on the side of the main road leading to the supermarket – that was for the poor. The contrast, so startling.
Whilst driving around in my friend’s car, I see mothers laying by the streets, their babes in their arms, begging for money and food, whilst their young barefooted children, wrapped in clothes much too large for them, run between cars, knocking on the windows, asking for donations. I turn my eyes away, it’s hard to see. They however cannot just turn their eyes away, this is their life.
I visit the poor area, what we Westerners would call ‘slums’ without giving it a second thought. For these people, this ‘slum’ is their life. It’s the place they wake up in, with the morning light, and the place they come back to at the end of a long work day. It’s the place they call home.
I look at one of these ‘homes’. The family sits outside, legs stretched, drinking the cold, beloved Paraguayan tea known as terrere, whilst sweating in the baking hot sun. But they smile, they chat and they laugh. I look at the cardboard roof, the walls made out of metal sheets, and the broken chair peeking out of the bare-furnished house. I hear singing and turn to see children dancing. Happiness amidst poverty. The Paraguayan twist.
But there was one thing, one incident, one moment, which was so powerful, that it has stayed with me until today.
Whilst staying with my friend’s family, we decided one afternoon to go on an outing. We drove to a nearby park and started strolling along the path, whilst chatting amongst ourselves. A young Paraguayan child ran up to us. Dark-skinned, dirty clothes, broken teeth. The picture of neglect. He must have been around seven or eight. My friend tensed slightly as the boy glanced at her daughter. Her 5 year old daughter skipping ahead, white-skinned, blond hair, cutely dressed. We quickened our pace, not wanting to be cruel, yet nervous he may be sick, as it seemed as though he had no one to care for him and teach him hygiene. He followed us, and we let him, although we kept glancing back uneasily at him.
Suddenly, before we could stop it, he sprinted over to my friend’s daughter and offered his hand to her. She looked at him, smiled and took his hand as they continued to walk together. We stood still in shocked horror, as we automatically shouted ‘nooo’, our adult minds placing him in the box of dirt and filth and our ‘rich’ daughter in honour and cleanliness. Yet in the second before her mother quickly pulled her hand away, I saw before me the most beautiful thing. Walking together, holding hands, a white-skinned, rich, innocent girl, with a dark-skinned, poor, innocent boy.
The Paraguayan twist.
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