One of the things I enjoy is observing the differences in the way people do things in other countries and areas. While these differences may not be just for Paraguay, they were new to me. So, here are some of the differences I noticed in daily life in Paraguay:
Clapping at the gate to let someone know you are outside their house. In the USA or Canada, I am used to knocking on a door or ringing a doorbell to let someone know I am at their house and want their attention. In Paraguay, single family home yards are typically surrounded by tall walls or fences with a gate. Sometimes the gate is locked, sometimes it isn’t. Some gates will have a buzzer or doorbell or even an intercom system. When we arrived at the Airbnb the house was surrounded by a high wall and an iron gate. The gate was unlocked and I proceeded to open it with the intent of walking up to the door and knocking on the door. My friend, Joe, stopped me and said, “Even if the gate is unlocked, you don’t just enter someone’s yard. It is their space, plus there could be dogs in the yard that you don’t see. Here is what you do instead.” He then proceeded to clap his hands, a three or four second burst of applause. Sure enough, the owner came out of the house, walked out to the gate and greeted us.
Critter resistant trash holders – Outside every house is an iron trash holder. These holders keep the trash off the ground and out of easy reach of any ferel dogs, cats or other critters. In our neighborhood trash was collected Monday, Wednesday and Friday. We reused the plastic grocery bags that were used to pack our groceries in at the grocery store.
If you think of it, these contraptions are also ergonomically beneficial. The trash collector doesn’t have to bend down and pick up heavy trash cans – these are right at waist level.
Taking a shower. The actual act of taking a shower in Paraguay is pretty much the same as anywhere else, it is how the water gets heated that is different. This varies from house to house with more of the newer and higher end houses opting for a tanked water heater, however, our Airbnb utilized a “widow maker” or “suicide shower” as they are often called. It consists of a shower head that is wired up to 230 Volts and when you turn the water on, the water is heated by electric heating elements. You control the water temperature by adjusting the flow of the water through the shower head. The faster the water comes out of the shower head the less time it has to heat and the cooler it will be. Turn down the water flow and it has more time to heat up and your water will be hotter.
It is called a “widow maker” or “suicide shower” due to electrocution deaths of people when the wiring is not correct or faulty. In the USA and Canada voltage in a house for lights and wiring is 120V and electrical codes require ground fault circuit interrupters to prevent electrical shock hazards in the bathroom. As someone who has spent over 30 years in the electrical industry in the USA and Canada, this made me a little nervous, but as they say “when in Rome!” All our showers were uneventful during our time in Paraguay. The nice thing about this method is you have basically endless hot water, there is no tank to deplete.
In our Airbnb, “La Casita”, there were two suicide showers, two bathroom sinks, an outdoor laundry sink and a kitchen sink. Hot water is only available in the showers. Most sinks that you see in the bathroom are a single cold faucet. Our friends house is “upgraded” and has a small 10 gallon hot water tank in the bathroom and another 5 gallon hotwater tank in the kitchen.
Residential streets are stone – In Asuncion, highways and main roads are asphalt but most residential streets are stone. It is kind of quaint and picturesque, but makes for a bumpy ride. Car suspensions don’t last long in this country.
Speed bumps are everywhere – speed bumps seem to be the primary method for controlling traffic speed. In my experience, about half of the speed bumps are unmarked – no sign and they are the same color as the road. I did a little bit of driving and was surprised more than once by what I felt was a random speed bump. Over time, you get to know where they are so you can slow down for them even though they are unmarked.
Right hand drive cars converted to left hand drive – in most of North and South America, cars drive on the right hand side of the road and the cars themselves are built with the steering wheel on the left hand side of the car. In the United Kingdom and many other parts of the world influenced by the UK, people drive on left hand side of the road and the steering wheel is on the right hand side.
In Japan, the cars are right hand drive and people drive on the left hand side of the road. What does this have to do with Paraguay? Well, in Japan, the taxation and licensing fees are structured such that the older a car is, the more you have to pay in annual taxes and licensing fees. It gets to the point where after a few years in Japan, it is much more expensive to keep a car that is 4 or 5 years old than it is to throw away the old car and buy a new one. The car might only have 80,000km or less on it and still has many years of useful life left, but due to the taxation and licensing situation it doesn’t make sense to keep it.
Here is where Paraguay comes in. Each year, thousands of these low mileage right hand drive, Japanese cars are shipped to Chile. A portion of these cars make it into Paraguay where they are switched from right hand drive to left hand drive to comply with Paraguayan traffic laws. They move the pedals, steering wheel, etc. from the left hand side of the car to the right.
I would include some pictures of these converted cars, but it is impossible for me to distinguish a converted car from a car built that way. The conversion process is that good. I don’t know how they do it, but for anywhere from $500-1000 USD you can convert a car from right hand drive to left hand drive. My friend tells me that the only way he can tell the difference is that there is a slight difference in the feel of the pedals. That’s it.
Child car seats? We don’t need no stinking car seats! – this brought back memories of my childhood. Believe it or not young people, child car seats did not exist in the sixties and seventies in the USA and Canada. I remember the days of wanting to get the middle seat in the backseat so you could stand on the hump and have a good view out the front window. I also got more than one fat lip when Dad hit the brakes suddenly.
This is quite a difference from when we raised our son in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I remember that the hospital wouldn’t even let us take him home if we didn’t prove we had a properly installed, certified car seat. I remember when our son first rode on a school bus and was horrified to find out that there were no seat belts on the school bus.
I am not condoning it or promoting not using car seats, but that is the way it is in Paraguay still. I don’t think I saw one car seat the whole time I was there.
Grocery shopping adventures Besides the differences in brands and the availability or lack of availability of certain types of foods, there are differences in the way you shop in a large grocery store.
In the city of Asuncion itself, most grocery shopping today is done in large grocery stores similar to what you would find in the USA and Canada. Yes, there are local markets, yes, you can buy fruit and vegetables from roadside stands, but today much of daily food supply goes through large grocery stores.
Here are a few differences though:
Fruits, vegetables and bread or baked goods are weighed in the produce or bakery department – you self-select the quantity and type of fruit or vegetables that you would like and put them in small plastic bags just like you would in a USA or Canadian grocery store. However, before taking them to a cash register, you must take them to a weighing station in the produce department. They are weighed and tagged with a bar code and price there making it easier and faster when you check out. I have seen this in Europe as well, so maybe Canada and the USA is the only place where your produce is weighed at checkout? The same happens with bread and baked goods. They are sold by weight rather than by piece and must be weighed and tagged before going to the cash register.
Store security – In most grocery stores you can’t take a large purse or backpack in the store. Some stores have an area where you can check your bag. One store had an interesting method for medium to large purses. You actually place your purse in a second bag and then that bag is sealed with an anti-theft tag similar to one you see placed on clothes for sale in a department store. You know the type, the ones that require a special tool at the checkout to remove.
In most stores, if you purchased a “high theft” item they had a new way to me of controlling theft. Both my wife and I needed deodorant. The brands we wanted were behind the glass in the cosmetics section of the store. We asked for our products and the clerk put them in a zipped red bag and then sealed the bag with another one of those anti-theft tags. When we got to the cash register they opened the bag and scanned our items.
Added sugar – They seem to add sugar to everything in Paraguay! Paraguay produces a lot of sugar from sugar cane. Ground coffee that you use to make your own drip or perked coffee has sugar in it! To find ground coffee to brew our own coffee at home we had to go to the “imported products’ section and got some Argentine coffee that was just ground coffee beans, no added sugar.
Fruit juices all seemed to have added sugar. Fresh fruit is plentiful in Paraguay. We often made our own fresh squeezed orange juice or grapefruit juice at home. But it was next to impossible to find prepackaged juice without added sugar. “Lite” or “Diet” juice just meant that it had less added sugar than regular.
Peanut butter is hard to find in Paraguay. I guess it is just not part of the culture. Imagine my joy when I found a package of what I thought was peanut butter! The packaging was a little different, in a bag rather than a jar, but peanut butter none the less. Ingredients – peanuts and sugar. I prefer natural peanut butter consisting of just ground peanuts, but hey, most peanut butter in the USA has a little sugar. I was disappointed when I got home and tried it. It had so much sugar it was gritty with the sugar. Really, it was a peanut flavored sugar mixture.
When travelling I look for and am fascinated with the small differences you find in everyday things. Some differences may have to do with specific laws (or lack of them) in a particular country. Some might be a better or more efficient way of doing things. Others might be due to local custom and “that’s just the way we have always done it. These are just a few of the differences we found in Paraguay versus our backgrounds growing up in the USA and Canada.