Thursday, December 29, 2011

Should We Talk About the Weather?

A few weeks back, while Kevin and I sat in the shade of our host family’s yard chatting about the day, a low hum started from the upper branches of the mango tree at our backs.  Our mom explained- the cicadas announce Christmas.

It turns out they brought the heat with them, too.  Summer has come to Paraguay. 

So far we’ve had a handful of days over one hundred degrees and many more in the mid-nineties.  Thick oppressive humidity weighs the air down and makes any activity difficult.  The sun feels closer here.  Between noon and 4:00pm our community turns into a ghost town.  No one braves the muggy streets, when terere (more on this soon) and shade waits at home.

I think, though, that we may have our family under the impression that we might die from the heat.  See, we talk about it a lot and when topics start to dominate conversations certain assumptions arise.  This, however, may actually indicate a bit a cultural integration. 

In Paraguay, we dance around things.  We do not ask for things directly and folks receive requests for explanations of a project or idea as outright criticism.  (Possible exceptions include inquiries to volunteers regarding level of belief in virgin birth, volume of meat consumed, and the choice to wear those pants when they clearly need ironing.)

For example, last week we held a small Christmas party for our youth group at a soccer field next to our town’s central plaza.  In preparation we needed to submit a request to use the area.  As an American, my instinct suggested I walk into the mayor’s office and ask.  The whole process should have taken five minutes maximum.

Instead, we spent over an hour discussing the heat over terere.  Of course the conversation turned in different directions through its natural course, but every time a new person entered the room we returned to the weather.  Eventually, we got around to the impending party and not only scored the space, but a neighbor lent us a volleyball set as well.  The business portion of our visit to the municipality lasted about three minutes.  The trip, however, took all morning.

Every interaction here starts with the weather.  As we assimilate to Paraguayan culture the percentage of our conversations involving the climate increase.  Understandably, this confuses those back home.  Generally, people in the United States (at least in urban settings) do not spend significant time discussing meteorological conditions.  It may come up, but conversations do not center around the topic.  In Paraguay, we discuss the temperature at length and meander our way into more pressing issues.  Only the very rude jump right into business talk. 

As a result, I think our family now worries that we might actually melt. 

(Full disclosure: Not too long ago I also shared this concern- especially early on in spring when I soaked through my shirt while surrounded by dry locals wearing cardigans on an eighty-nine degree day.  Of course, some of this sweat could have been fear sweat, as upon seeing longing sleeves I panicked about future thermometer readings if nearing ninety still meant sweater weather.  Thankfully, my body’s tolerance to resist sweating, although still not on par with my neighbors, has improved since that afternoon.)

Their concern makes sense.  In the United States we prioritize.  If someone spends most of an international phone call talking about how hot they feel, this heat must really bother them.  In Paraguay, we talk about the temperature to warm up to the real exchange.

I’ve heard that when one's second language skills get stronger, they have an easier time switching between their native and new tongues.  During the process, though, often words from one source slip into conversations held in the other.  Regularly, Kevin and I unconsciously pepper our english with spanish verbs.
Perhaps the same concept holds true for cultural integration.  Even as Paraguay starts to feel like home, my sense of self as an American grows.  Sometimes South America makes me feel more like a North American than I ever did back home.  Contrast highlights the difference.  I know that this experience will change me, but for now my two worlds have mixed together.  I don't yet know how to move back and forth between the two.


  1. I enjoy reading your blog. It is very interesting to find out what you are experiencing in your Peace Corps journey. Today we had a wind chill of 3 below with the actual temp about 15 degrees! Wish I could send you some cool and you send me some heat! Hope you both are doing well. Judy Wray

    1. Thanks, Judy. Your support means a lot.

      I think if we could convince the weather to meet in the middle, we'd be in good shape.