Narratives South America Study Abroad

Paraguay: The Little Country That Changed My Life

Story by Daniella Emami |

In the summer of 2011, when I was 16 years old, I had the privilege to live and work in the small town of Itapevy, Paraguay. When I first found out that I would be living in Paraguay, I honestly had no idea where the country was, let alone what Paraguayan culture entailed. I made the mistake of setting expectations for what my summer would look like: what the country of Paraguay was like and what its people were like. Every expectation I set was proven to be completely wrong, in the absolute best way possible.

Paraguay is a small country with a population of about 6 million, landlocked between three Latino supergiants: Argentina, Brazil and Chile. Although small and often unnoticed, Paraguay was, and still is, the most interesting, confusing and enigmatic country that I have ever been to. It is a Latino country heavily influenced by its indigenous Guaraní roots;  to this day, a large part of the country speaks Guaraní, not Spanish. When Spanish is spoken, it is often reserved for business, while Guaraní is for everyday life. Additionally, unlike many of the people from the neighboring Latino countries, Paraguayans are often soft-spoken, timid and calmer by nature– and actually don’t dance very often.

I can vividly remember the day I first arrived at my host family’s farm. We traveled on a cachapé, the Guaraní word for a horse-drawn sugar crate, on top of that day’s sugar cane harvest. It was a bumpy ride for the last hour of the trip on a small, winding dirt road– the only way in and out of the small community of Itapevy. When we finally arrived at my new home, its beauty struck me: it was lush, green and gorgeous. My home was similar to that of many Paraguayan campo homes: the main home was built of brick on the outside and cement floors on the inside, and the bathroom and kitchen were separate spaces outside of the home. There were also animals everywhere– dogs, cats, cows, horses, goats, pigs, you name it.

That day, I met my two loving host parents and three endearing younger host brothers, all of whom had lived in this small town of 200 people for their entire lives. They took me in as their own hija within days.With no phone, Internet, or electricity, my host family and fellow community members showed me how to have fun in the most pure ways. We would cry from laughing while playing cards, adventure to the river and mountains and spend quality family time together every single night.

My daily routine was completely opposite to what I had become accustomed to in the States. I was home for every meal, as well as for afternoon and evening mate, a traditional South American tea. In my community, mate was a staple of social life, and it was one of the ways I got to know my friends and adopted family. When drinking mate, one person holds the guampa, the cup that is used to drink out of, and is responsible for filling the guampa each round with hot water over the tea leaves, then passing it along. As I found out the hard way, you must finish the mate when it is your turn or it can’t be passed along to the next person– a societal rule based on superstition. Little rules like this were what I found to be the most intriguing part of Paraguayan campo life.

My host parents taught me many more of their superstitions: don’t mix hot and cold, because you will blow up; don’t sweep at night, because witches will come to get you; always eat an animal’s head last; and don’t ever leave your machete anywhere other than the roof. Did I mention that I saw more machetes in one 200-person Paraguayan town than I had in my entire life?

I could go on for days about the small things that make Paraguay the beautiful, fascinating, and sometimes just strange place that it is, but looking back I will always remember Paraguay as the place I learned what pure, simple happiness looks like. Every person I met, especially my host family, seemed to be completely at peace– maybe because of the emphasis on close, personal relationships, or because of a naturally calmer state of mind. Although it has been five years now, I will never forget the ways of genuinely living and loving that I learned from my time in the Paraguayan campo.

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