India to Paraguay: Traveling from One Extreme to the Next
Three months ago, I made a life-altering transition in my life: I went from living abroad for two years in empanada-loving, Spanish and Guaraní speaking, Reggaeton-blasting Latin America, to rice-and-dahl gorging, Hindi-central chattering, and Bollywood-dancing Southeast Asia. The transition from being a Peace Corps Volunteer in Paraguay to an AIF William J. Clinton fellow in India has definitely been an abrupt yet exciting change.
While I have intense loves for both of these countries and their cultures, I have found myself constantly comparing one to the other in how extremely different they are. Where Paraguay is laid back, India is overwhelmingly busy. Where Paraguay suffers from under-population, India is teeming to the brim full of people. Where Indian food is so spicy you burn a hole in your mouth, Paraguayans blanch at one shake of pepper. After much musings, here are some of the most interestingly diverse comparisons between these two countries:
Paraguay: In Paraguay, no one has ever heard of a vegetarian, and I’ve yet to meet a local that doesn’t gobble down meat three times a day. Lunches are long and luxurious and consist of baked meat, fried meat, or grilled meat, and on Sundays there is always carne asado (grilled beef on the barbecue), vincola (wine mixed with soda) or beer, and sopa paraguaya (a heavy yet addictive cheesy cornbread).
India: Hey Paraguay, here’s where all the vegetarians are! In India, most people I come across don’t eat meat, defining themselves as ‘veg.’ Nearly every restaurant I walk into has a long ‘veg’ and much shorter ‘non-veg’ menu, and finding beef is a rarity. After inhaling grilled meat every waking moment in South America, transitioning to a mostly ‘veg’ lifestyle has definitely been an adjustment, though I usually take myself out for an expensive American cheeseburger once every few weeks to curb the insatiable beef cravings.
Paraguay: If anything, Paraguayans seem to care the least about germs than any other culture on the planet. The national drink, tereré, is to be communally shared among family, friends, and complete strangers. Forks and knives are shared at lunch without a second thought, and it’s always appropriate to wipe your mouth on the tablecloth. After a meal, a glass of soda is always passed around the entire table, and at restaurants or bars, your group will always get just one glass to accompany your beverages. Once you become accustomed to this ‘share-everything’ type of culture, it’s easy to re-think how germs are passed from one person to another.
India: While sanitation is definitely a different cultural phenomenon here in India (I constantly find myself sidestepping spit, trash, and human waste on the streets in Delhi), sharing drinks or food is prohibited. Sharing a drink, a handshake, or even a cigarette is carefully and culturally planned to be avoided to the utmost extreme. Indians have developed a respectful palm clasp followed by a ‘Namaste’ to strangers, its origins being from not wanting to get germs from a handshake. If drinks must be shared, an Indian is careful to never let a bottle or glass touch his or her lips, choosing to ‘waterfall’ the liquid over one’s hovering mouth. Additionally, getting sick, being sick, or preventing sickness, is a constant topic of conversation around the water cooler.
Paraguay: In the land of the ‘guay, the word of the century is tranquilo, and for lack of a better translation, you could say it means chill, cool, calm, relaxed. People often dedicate more energy to finding reasons to get out of work than to actually doing it. It’s too cold outside? Better not go to work. It’s raining? Better not go to work. There’s a strike every other week? Stay home and relax. Lunches are long and siestas following those lunches are even longer. All of these give way to a deep cultural truth in Paraguay: spending time with friends and family is much more important and satisfying than working. Having a Type-A personality from rat race USA, I initially found it hard to adjust to this type of lifestyle, but over time, I was able to appreciate and even embrace the many benefits of living a slower pace of life.
India: In India, work IS life, and it is as intense as it is long. Young and ambitious Indians migrate to cities dreaming of big lives for themselves and earning an income to send back to their family. It’s not uncommon for a young professional to work up to 12 hours every day, including weekends. Everyone is trying to impress his or her boss and focused on career climbing. People come into work regardless of colds, holidays, or family events, choosing to focus on their professions instead of their social lives. Coming from laid-back Paraguay, I have had to adjust to India’s intense work schedule, but it’s been great to compare the benefits and drawbacks of both lifestyles.
Paraguay: For girls, spandex and busty tank tops rule the land. Makeup is heavily applied, and it’s every woman’s ambition to own expensive perfume. For guys, wearing jeans to work is considered formal, and a suit is only for the most formal occasions, such as weddings. However, Paraguayans pride themselves on their appearances, and body odor is a HUGE no-no here. It is not uncommon to find locals showering 3-4 times a day.
India: When I showed up to work the first day in the most formal (and what I thought was conservative) suit and blazer I had, someone whispered to me at the end of the day that my legs needed to be covered. So I went shopping for the traditional salwar kameez, which modestly covers the legs, arms, chest, and shoulders, along with a dupatta, or scarf to wrap around the shoulders. For guys, a suit can even be informal, depending on your job. Body odor is not considered offensive in the slightest.
Paraguay: In Paraguay, crude and lewd jokes are always the order of the day, and you’ll find people competing at parties to tell the most offensive stories. Cursing like a sailor in Guarani or describing a dirty joke that involves infidelity will send any Paraguayan into hysterics. You’ll always find that those 80-year old grandmothers are easily the raunchiest of any get-together.
India: Jokes in India are much more formal and subdued, like secrets shared between close friends. The worst curse word I’ve been taught by a friend has the equivalent translation of “just go away” in English. And when teaching a table-full of Delhi’s glitterati that Ejapirotunare means ‘go jerk off on a cactus’ in Guaraní, I received mostly uncomfortable laughter and stares. Guess I shouldn’t tell the story of how I accidentally said “Please pass the small penis” in Guaraní over dinner.
All in all, Paraguay and India are extremely different and diverse places culturally, but their unity is in their wonderful, kind, and generous people. Also, transportation definitely seems to be one of their similarities as I’ve been victim to some crazy bus rides in both countries. But while these two places generally seem to be the opposite in many ways, I love them both and feel infinitely grateful to be spending so much time in these different corners of the world.