Toto? I have a feeling we’re not in Canberra anymore… (pt 1)

Niki van Buuren 22 June 2014 5

In just under a week I fly out to Paraguay on a trip that has been several months in the making. I’ll be joining a friend in some volunteer work, where I will be working with some of the poorest communities in Asuncion, Paraguay’s capital city.

I’m completely not prepared for this. I don’t think you can prepare for a trip like this.

For starters, Paraguayans don’t speak English. Yo no tengo mucho español. (For those of you following at home, that means ‘I don’t speak much Spanish’, or more realistically, ‘I will probably have to resort to Pictionary if I want to order a burrito’.*) Pero estoy aprendiendo con un libro de frases en español y traductor Google!

I am lucky enough to live in a country that, despite currently being run by a guy who thinks that Jesus doesn’t want asylum seekers to show up here**, has a thriving economy and is largely very safe. I don’t need to worry where my next meal is coming from, or whether I’m going to catch rabies from my cat. My biggest concern some days is whether or not I have time for my morning coffee on my way to my permanent job. I make more in one week than the average Paraguayan would make in a month.

I drove to school in the fog this morning, heater turned way up, casting pitying glances at the poor schmucks shivering at the bus stop. About half of my conversations with my colleagues went along the lines of:

“Wow, it’s a bit chilly today!”
“Yeah, totally. I didn’t want to get out of bed this morning!”

It was true – I really, really didn’t want to leave my nice warm bed, with its nice warm doona. I didn’t want to step into the hallway and be a bit cold for the five minutes it takes to get into the shower. I didn’t want to walk the 20 metres from my front door to my 2012 Mazda3 and sit in the drivers’ seat while the heater kicked in. But then, I told myself to get over myself. Paraguay doesn’t get the kind of winters that Canberra does, but the people I will be working with don’t have doonas, or running water for showers. They don’t have shiny new cars. At the moment the vast majority of them don’t even have access to permanent shelter.

There has been a bit of flooding in Asuncion recently. And by ‘a bit’, what I actually mean is, ‘about 100 000 residents have been displaced and that number will probably rise higher’. The relief work is being largely spearheaded by volunteers because the Paraguayan government won’t actually get off their backsides to help, unless they can make some sort of political gain from it.

My previous overseas excursions total two: 5 days in Bali (where I ran the gauntlet of drunk Australian tourists), and 10 days in New Zealand (where I ran the gauntlet of New Zealand locals, who were very friendly and laid back and probably not as drunk). I have never been to a developing country. I have never been anywhere that required vaccination against Typhoid and Hep A and Yellow Fever. I didn’t even get the dreaded ‘Bali belly’ when I was there.

I checked the Smart Traveller website to see what I was in for. The section on Paraguay advised me to ‘exercise a high level of caution’ due to the levels of crime. So, no walking outside alone at night. No getting into taxis on the street (I have to call them first). Wear bags across my body. My South American buddies warned me not to look like a tourist – yep, my blue eyes and light coloured hair is definitely going to help me there – and try to blend in as much as possible. The citizens of many South American nations view all ‘gringos’ as rich, stupid and easy to take advantage of.

So, this trip will probably be the bravest, scariest, most challenging thing I have ever done in my life up until this point. And yes, that includes spending 10 months in a burns unit. How the hell do you prepare for a journey that you know, in every fibre of your being, is going to change the way you think about every aspect of your existence?
…well, if you’re me, you write about it. I’ll be posting some pieces while I’m there.

Niki van Buuren is a Canberra-based writer, teacher and gringo with poor Spanish skills.

*My friend has since informed me that I am unlikely to find a burrito in Asuncion, which makes this statement entirely redundant. But my point remains.


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5 Responses to Toto? I have a feeling we’re not in Canberra anymore… (pt 1)
watto23 watto23 3:54 pm 24 Jun 14

dungfungus said :

In South America, Gringo is terminology for a non-Latin person from the Northern Hemisphere only.

Not strictly correct although it did derive from calling american gringos. It used far more widely and and has a less derogatory meaning these days. Besides I’d rather gringo than extranjero!

dungfungus dungfungus 2:51 pm 24 Jun 14

In South America, Gringo is terminology for a non-Latin person from the Northern Hemisphere only.

Rol Rol 10:48 am 24 Jun 14

Good luck! Hopefully your experience will allow you to get past the many stereotypes that inform your article and leave behind the classic Us (rich, doona-owning, privileged) vs. Them (poor, doona-less, disenfranchised) international aid discourse that really helps no one. To name a few:

We (I am Latin American though not Paraguayan) do not view “all ‘gringos’ as rich, stupid and easy to take advantage of”, just as I am sure not all Australians see foreigners as poor freeloaders here to take their jobs.
Not everyone in Lat. Am. is non-white, it is your behaviour, (like running “the gauntlet of drunk Australian tourists”) not your blue eyes, that make you stand out and while whites are not a majority you’ll be surprised how many you run into.
I hope in time you’ll recognize the enormous socioeconomic diversity of those countries and realize that, while you may be there to help (which is fantastic), things are not as black and white as you make them seem. The levels of poverty and exclusion you will see are not always that dissimilar to those of, for example, some Aboriginal communities in Australia, they just don’t make the news very often. Inequality and poverty is bad, here or there.

Forget Wikipedia and Smart Traveller (except for safety of course), really make an effort to learn about the region you are going to visit, your understanding of it will be very much enhanced. Here are but a few suggestions, some are a bit heavy but you do claim to be at the doors of a life-changing experience, no? :

Mendez, O’Donnell and Pinheiro, The (Un)Rule of Law and the Underprivileged in Latin America (1999).
Bethell, Leslie, ed., The Cambridge History of Latin America (Cambridge University Press), vols 3-6.
Frances Hagopian and Scott Mainwaring, eds., The Third Wave of Democratization in Latin
America: Advances and Setbacks (CUP, 2005).
Laurence Whitehead, ed., The International Dimensions of Democratization: Europe and the Americas (OUP, 2001)
Thorp, R. (1998) Progress, Poverty and Exclusion: an Economic History of Latin America in the 20th century, Washington, DC: IDB.

Again, good luck.

Mysteryman Mysteryman 1:48 pm 23 Jun 14

“Yo no tengo mucho español. (For those of you following at home, that means ‘I don’t speak much Spanish’, or more realistically, ‘I will probably have to resort to Pictionary if I want to order a burrito’ “

Actually that means you don’t “have” much Spanish. “No hablo mucho español” would more literally translate to “I don’t speak much Spanish”. In either case you can drop the “Yo” because you’re using the conjugation of the verb that implies “I”.

Go there, be cautious, have fun, learn, and appreciate even more what we have here upon your return.

neanderthalsis neanderthalsis 12:58 pm 23 Jun 14

The best way to prepare is to try learning some of the history of the country you are going to:

Locals love it when you can actually understand the intricacies of their national sociopolitical construct instead of just being a dumb white person there to change the world. and make yourself feel like a better person.

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